Hazlitt Magazine

Walk the Line

On the ground during the historic LA teachers’ strike.

All Saints' Mountain

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

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

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

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Walk the Line

On the ground during the historic LA teachers’ strike.

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

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

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

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

Translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft. The plane arrived over Zurich when it was supposed to, but for a long time it was obliged to circle the city, since snow had covered the airport, and we had to wait until the slow yet effective machines had managed to clear that snow. Just as it landed, the snow clouds parted, and against the orange blazing sky there were contrails in tangles that transformed the firmament into a gigantic grid—almost as though God were extending an invitation to play a round of tic-tac-toe. The driver who was supposed to pick me up and who was waiting with my last name written out on the lid of a cardboard shoebox was quick to state facts: “I’m supposed to take you to the pension—the road up to the Institute is completely snowed under. We won’t make it to there.” But his dialect was so strange I could barely understand him. I also felt like I had missed something. It was May, after all, the eighth of May. “The world’s turned on its head. Just take a look at that.” He placed my luggage in the car and then pointed to the darkening sky. “I’ve heard they’re poisoning us with it, airplane fumes altering our subconscious.” I nodded. The grated horizon really did trigger unease. We reached our destination late at night, traffic jams everywhere, cars’ wheels spinning in place, all of us moving at a snail’s pace—at best—in the wet snow. Gray slush arose along the roadsides. In town the snowplows were in full force, but farther along, in the mountains, which we began to climb, very carefully, it turned out there was no one clearing the roads. My driver clung to the steering wheel, leaning in; his ample aquiline nose pointed out our direction like the bow of a ship pulling us through a murky sea towards some port. The reason I was here was that I’d signed a contract to come. I was supposed to administer a test to a group of teenagers. It was a test I had come up with myself, and for more than thirty years, it had remained the only one of its kind, enjoying considerable renown among my fellow developmental psychologists. The honorarium they had offered me was very large. When I saw it in the agreement, I was sure they had made a mistake. I was also bound, however, by the strictest secrecy. The company that was conducting the analysis had its headquarters in Zurich, but I hadn’t recognized its name. I can’t say it was only the money that convinced me. There were other reasons, too. I got a shock when I found out that the “pension” my driver had mentioned was in fact a few guest rooms in a dark ancient convent at the mountain’s base. An outpouring of dense light from the soda lanterns just outside it displayed chestnuts suffering on account of the snow, already flowering; now, white and muffled under little frozen pillows, they looked like subjects of some incomprehensible, absurd oppression. The driver led me to a side entrance and carried my suitcase upstairs. There was a key sticking out of the door to my room. “All the official procedures have been dealt with. You just rest. I’ll come back for you tomorrow,” said the driver with the big nose. “You’ll find your breakfast in the fridge. And the sisters will have you down for coffee at ten.” Not until I took my medication did I fall asleep—after I had found myself back inside my treasured time hole, into which I and my body were both happy to fall as though into a fully feather-lined nest. Since my illness had come, I had been training for this mode of non-existence every night. * At nine, I watched the strangest coffee ritual I had ever encountered. I was in an enormous space, in the center of which stood a massive wooden table that bore the traces of many centuries’ use, and around it sat six old women in religious habits. They glanced up at me when I entered the room. There were three of them on either side; their identical habits made their facial features also look alike. A seventh sister, bustling about, bursting with energy, wearing a striped apron over her nun’s clothes, had just set out on the table a sizeable coffee pot and, wiping her hands on her apron, she now came up to me, holding those bony hands out before her. Welcoming me, she was a little on the loud side, though this, too—as I’d soon understand—had its explanation: most of these old ladies were fairly hard of hearing. She introduced me to the rest by my first name and rattled off the nuns’ names, which were odd. The eldest was called Beatrix. There was also Ingeborg, Tamar and Charlotte, as well as Izydora and Cezarina. Tamar’s stillness made you want to watch her. She looked like a statuette of a primeval goddess. She sat atop a wheelchair, her body round, her face pale and beautiful emerging from her body’s habit. I felt as though she were looking through me, as though she glimpsed—beyond me—some expanse. By now, I thought, she would have joined that valiant tribe that inwardly ranges over the alpine meadows of memory; to that tribe’s members, we are but pesky specks on the surface of the eye. Taken aback by the whole, I made a closer inspection of the vast bright space, which was divided into dining room and kitchen, the latter containing powerful multi-burner gas stoves with ovens as well as a bread oven, while its walls were crowded with huge hanging pans and shelves stacked with pots. Sinks unfurled under the window, one after the other, like in the back of an industrial canteen. The counters were covered in sheet metal, and metal, too, were all the fixtures, not one of artificial materials, all linked by bulbous tubes as though straight off Captain Nemo’s ship. The sterile purity that predominated here also immediately brought to mind old-fashioned laboratories, Dr. Frankenstein and his frightening experiments. The only modern additions to the room took the form of the colored recycling bins in the corner. Sister Charlotte explained the colossal kitchen had not in fact been used in years, and that now the sisters cooked for themselves on a small gas stove or ordered the catering services offered by one of the local restaurants. Sister Anna, the woman wearing the apron—the prioress, as it turned out—added that back in the sixties, when she had first arrived, the convent had held some sixty sisters from all over Europe. “Once, bread was baked here. We would make cheeses, thirty-five pounds each. But there’s no sense now in making cheese or baking bread for seven of us…” Sister Charlotte said, sounding like she was just getting started on a much longer story. But Sister Anna interjected: “Eight of us! For eight,” she cried brightly. “And please come and see us once you’re up there.” With her chin, she indicated a direction I could not yet know. “The Institute belongs to us, as well. There’s a shortcut through the pastures, which makes it a half-hour walk.” The coffee pot was being passed from hand to hand now, coffee streaming darkly into cups, releasing steam. Next the nuns’ hands seized upon the cream containers, elderly fingers meticulously peeling back the tinfoil of their covers, pouring the cream into their coffees. Then they were tearing the tinfoil clean off, and then it traveled to their tongues, like an aluminum host. In a single lick, their tongues had restored that host’s unadulterated glisten, its cleanliness. After a while, those scrupulous tongues went into the containers, too, to rid them of whatever remained there, and they did eliminate even the tiniest droplets of cream. The sisters seemed pleased to lick the cream up, and they did so with the practiced expertise of people who had gone through those same motions hundreds of times. Now it fell to them to shell the plastic container, removing the paper band it had been swathed in. The sisters’ fingernails found out the glue with sensitivity, tearing off the bands in triumph. As a result of all these operations, every sister ended up behind a little pile of plastic, paper and aluminum, those three raw materials. “We care very much about the environment. We humans are an exceptional species, but we risk extinction if things keep going as they are,” said Sister Anna, giving me a knowing wink. One of the sisters giggled. “You’re right, sister, it’s one a year, like clockwork.” Consumed by the repetition of their activities, I hadn’t noticed an eighth woman coming into the kitchen, seemingly silently, and sitting down next to me. It wasn’t until she made a very small movement that I turned to her and saw a very young girl wearing exactly the same habit as the older nuns. She had dark skin, its vivid tint standing out against the pale backdrop of the others, as though for this portrait inside this painting she had just been touched up with fresh paints. “That’s our Swati,” announced the prioress with evident pride. The girl smiled impersonally, stood and began to collect the recycling, already separated into the appropriate categories, and to deposit it inside the colored bins. I was grateful to the prioress for receiving me as though I were an old friend. When her cell phone started ringing, she hurried to remove from her pockets all sorts of items: keys, pastilles, a little notebook, a sheet of pills… The phone turned out to be an old Nokia—an antediluvian artefact. “Yes,” she said into the phone in that strange dialect. “Thank you.” And then, to me: “Your driver is here, my child.” I let myself be led through the labyrinths of the old building to the exit, lamenting my undrunk coffee. Outside I was blinded by the May sun; just before I got into the car, I overheard for one moment that concert of everything melting, fat drops splashing down from all sides, drumming against the roof, the stairs, the windowpanes, the leaves of trees. A lively river already rushed beneath our feet, transforming the eccentricity of snow into the banality of water and carrying it down and away, into the lake. I don’t know why it struck me in that moment that all those old ladies in habits were prepared for death, awaiting it with dignity. And here I was flailing in its face. * “You’ll have excellent working conditions here, please have a look,” said Dani, the program’s director, when I arrived at the Institute that day. She spoke English with an Italian accent, although her face suggested Native American, maybe even East Asian, ancestry. “This is your office, so you won’t even need to go outside to get to work.” She smiled. Next to her stood a man in a plaid button-down shirt that strained over his paunch. “This is Victor, our program manager.” She said that not far from here there was a trail for tourists, and that without too much effort—some three hours’ or so—you could reach the top of the monumental mountain, visible from everywhere, which tended to give one the impression one was still in the lowlands, even where we were. The Institute was a modern concrete building in which straight lines reigned supreme. Aluminum bands supported enormous panes, the glass reflecting the irregular shapes of the natural world, which lessened somewhat the severity of the block. Behind this there was another large edifice, that looked to have been built in the early part of the twentieth century. It was almost indistinguishable from a school, especially since I caught a glimpse of a field out in front of it where a group of teenagers was playing soccer. I was overcome by fatigue, no doubt because of the altitude, although also perhaps just because lately I had felt fatigued more or less all the time. I asked to be taken to the room where I was to stay over the next few weeks. In my condition, taking an afternoon rest is always a good idea. My exhaustion tended to arrive around two, when I’d get sleepy and sluggish. I’d have the sense then that the day was breaking down, that it was getting depressed and that it might not be able to pull itself together by the evening. But it would drag itself towards seven, often not dropping until midnight. I didn’t start a family, didn’t make a home, did not ever plant a tree. I dedicated all my time to work, to ceaseless research, submitting my results to the complex statistical procedures I always trusted more than my own instincts. My achievement in life was a psychological test that enables the researcher to detect psychological characteristics in statu nascendi, meaning those characteristics that have not yet fully crystalized, not yet taken hold in the system that is the mature personality of an adult. My Developmental Tendencies Test earned rapid recognition around the world and was almost universally implemented. Thanks to it I became well known, got tenure at my university and lived a peaceful life, always working to perfect the details of the procedure. Time showed that my DTT had very high predictive powers, and that by administering it, you could in most cases foresee what a given person would become, what direction his or her development would take. I never thought I’d dedicate my life to just one thing, doing the same thing over and over again. I used to think I was a restless soul, often taken by fervent passing fancies. If I’d been able to take my own test as a child, I wonder whether it would have shown I would become industrious, the tireless rhapsode of a single idea, refiner of a single chased design. * That evening, the three of us went into town for dinner at a restaurant where great slates of glass overlooked the lake directly, ensuring guests a soothing view of that black water, sparkling with the lights of the town. This quivering abyss drew my gaze relentlessly, away from my companions as they spoke. We had pears with honey and gorgonzola, then truffle risotto—the most expensive dishes on offer. The white wine was also among the best on the menu. Victor spoke the most, and his low-pitched voice drowned out—thankfully—the music, mechanical and cold, coming insistently from somewhere. He complained that these days we lacked people with charisma, that in our age people were so ordinary that they didn’t have the strength to change the world for good. His plaid-clad belly polished the table’s edge. Dani spoke to me with polite respect, in a confiding tone I liked. She leaned over the table to me, the fringe of her scarf dipping dangerously close to her plate, threatening submersion in melted gorgonzola. Of course I asked them questions about the children we were to study. Who were they, and why were they to undergo the test? What was the purpose of “our program”? Though I also knew it wasn’t any of my business, really. We did converse, but I was focused above all on the taste of the tiny slivers of truffle, no bigger than a match head. The children were brought here for a three-month period, which they would spend in a so-called alpine school. There, as they learned and played, their abilities would be monitored and studied. All were adopted, they said, and the purpose of the program was to analyze the flow of social capital into the development of the individual (he said) and/or the impact of the whole range of environmental variables on future professional success (she said). My task was simple: I was to conduct my test in its widest-ranging version. They wanted precise profiles and future projections. The research was for private enterprise. The sponsors had all the permits and permissions they could possibly acquire; the program had been going on for years but was still being kept under wraps, for now. I nodded, pretending I was listening and taking all this in, though the entire time all I was doing was relishing the truffles. I had the feeling that since I had been ill, my sense of taste had layered, or splintered, meaning that every element of food would be interpolated on its own: mushrooms, bites of wheat pasta, olive oil, parmesan, tender bits of garlic… I had the feeling, in other words, that there were no longer dishes, just loose confederations of ingredients. “We’re so grateful that a megastar like you was willing to come here in person,” said Dani, and our glasses met in a toast. We talked politely and at leisure, enjoying dinner, until the wine had loosened our tongues a little bit more. I told them how any hint of predicting the future inspires fascination in people, but also strong, irrational resistance. It also leads to a claustrophobic unease, which is likely the same fear of fate with which humanity has been struggling since the time of Oedipus. In our hearts of hearts, we never want to know the future. I told them, too, that good psychometrics are like brilliantly constructed traps. Once the psyche has fallen into them, the more it flails, the more it struggles, the more it betrays about itself, the more evidence it leaves behind. Today we know that a person is born as a kind of ticking time bomb of different potentials, and that the process of growing up is not at all one of enrichment and learning—it is instead the elimination of one possibility after the next. In the end, out of a wild, lush plant, we become something more along the lines of a bonsai—stunted, cut down to size, just a stiff miniature of all our possible selves. My test differs from the others in that it shows not what we gain in maturation, but rather what we lose. Our gamut of possibilities gets slimmer and slimmer—but it is also this that makes it relatively easy to predict what we’ll become. My whole academic career was inextricably connected with ridicule, deprecation, accusations of parapsychology and even of falsifying results. Without a doubt it’s because of this that I became such a suspicious person, quick to get defensive. First I would attack and provoke, and then, troubled by what I’d done, I would retreat. What angered me the most was the accusation of irrationality. Scientific discoveries often seem irrational in the beginning, because it’s rationality that delimits knowing; in order to cross the border into the unknown, we must frequently set aside rationality, throw ourselves into the darkest depths of the untested, precisely so that bit by bit we can make it into something rational—so that we can comprehend it. When I was still traveling the world giving talks about my test, I would start each one by saying, “Yes—although I know this will upset you—a person’s life can be predicted. The tools to do it exist.” Invariably these words would meet with a tense silence. * When we entered the common room, the children were playing some game that consisted of acting out scenes. Already from the hallway we had heard bursts of laughter. Then it was hard for them to acquire the seriousness they needed to greet me. I would have been around the same age as their grandmothers, which instantly generated between us something like a warm reserve. They weren’t attempting any liberties. One brave little girl, petite and very resolute, asked me several questions. Where was I from? What language did my mother speak? Was this my first time in Switzerland? How bad is the pollution in the place where I live? Do I have a cat or a dog? And what kind of test would it be? Would it be boring? I’m Polish, I began, answering each question in order. My mom spoke Polish. I’ve been to Switzerland several times and have many friends at the university here in Berne. The pollution is significant, though still significantly less than in the place I moved from. Especially in the winter, when our northern hemisphere increases the production of smog many times over. In the country, where I live, you don’t have to wear masks over your face. The test will be quite pleasant. You’ll have to fill out a couple of quizzes on a computer about very ordinary matters—for example, what you like and what you don’t, and so on. You’ll also look over some strange three-dimensional blocks and tell me what they mean. Parts of the test will be conducted with the aid of an innovative new machine, which won’t hurt—at most it may tickle a little. You will certainly not be bored. For several nights you’ll sleep in a special cap that will monitor your sleep. Some of the questions may seem very personal, but we promise complete confidentiality. So I will always be asking for your utmost frankness. Some of the test will be tasks you’ll get to do, which will seem to you like games. I can assure you that our time together will be enjoyable. Yes, I did have a dog, but a few years ago he passed away, and since then I have not wished to have pets. “Didn’t you want to clone him?” asked a clever little girl who, as it would turn out, was called Miri. I didn’t know what to say. I had not considered it. “They say they do it all the time in China,” said a tall boy with an elongated olive face. The dog question engendered a brief, chaotic discussion, but then the introductory niceties were evidently seen to have been performed, and the children returned to their play. They let us join in—it was, I understood, a version of our game of Ambassador, in which the players must communicate some piece of information through body language alone, without a word. We played without splitting up into teams, all playing on behalf of ourselves alone. I wasn’t able to guess anything correctly. The children did snippets of games of some sort, films I didn’t know. They were from another planet, and they thought fast, in shortcuts that led to worlds that were, to me, altogether unknown. I observed them with the pleasure with which one looks at something that is smooth, young, springy, nice, connected directly to life’s sources. The wonderful timidity of that which did not yet have established boundaries. Nothing in them had been destroyed yet, nor anything ossified, nor anything encysted—they were just organisms, gleefully striving, clambering up and up and up in the thrill of the awareness of a summit. Now, when I reach back into the memory of that scene, I can see clearly that the ones who stayed in my mind were Thierry and Miri. Thierry, tall, darker-complexioned, with heavy eyelids, as though always bored, not even fully conscious. And Miri—petite, concentrated inwards like a spring. I did also examine the twins. When one enters a room where there is more than a single set of identical twins, one immediately has a strange sense of unreality. Here, too, I had it. The first set: boys sitting far away from one another—their names were Julian and Max, both stocky, with dark eyes and dark curly hair and big hands. Then, two tall blond girls, Amelia and Julia: identically attired, focused and polite, sitting close together—so close their shoulders touched. I watched them in fascination, involuntarily searching for details that might differentiate them from one another. Others, like Vito and Otto, did everything they could in order to lessen the resemblance: one with a buzz cut, the other with long hair, one dressed in a dark shirt and dark pants, the other in shorts and a rainbow-colored t-shirt. It took me a moment to realize they were twins, and then I caught myself staring at them in amazement. They smiled at me, probably accustomed by now to looks like the one I had given them. Next to Miri sat Hanna, a tall seventeen-year-old with the figure of a model and an androgynous charm. She barely took part in the game, smiling only slightly, as though her mind were somewhere else. Tall, slim Adrian—nervous, hyperactive, tending to take charge—would leap to guessing first, spoiling the others’ fun. And Eva, who in a somewhat maternal tone would quiet him, trying to restore some order to the room. They were the types of children that made up any summer camp. * The next day I started the first part of my inquiry, which was dedicated to psychoneurological parameters—a largely mechanical segment. Simple memory and perception tests. Blocks arranged in the appropriate order, reading strange drawings, one eye, the other eye. As I had promised, they had a good time. In the evening, as I put the data through my computer, Victor came to see me. “I just wanted to remind you of the secrecy clause you signed,” he said. “Save files only to our internal storage systems. Don’t use any of your own.” This irritated me. It struck me as disrespectful. Later, when I was smoking my daily joint on the terrace, an uneasy Victor popped into my room once again. “It’s legal, I have a prescription for it,” I clarified. I handed him the joint, and he inhaled deeply, expertly. He kept the smoke in his mouth, narrowing his eyes as though preparing himself for a completely different sense of sharpness, a vision in which everything would be defined by wonderfully soft contours. “Did you hire me just because I don’t have much longer to live? Was that the point? That’s the best guarantee of secrecy, right? The silence of the grave.” He emitted a little bit of smoke, swallowed the rest. For a moment he stared at the floor like I had caught him in a lie he’d only just come up with. He changed the subject. He told me that predicting a person’s future on the basis of some test was an affront, in his opinion, to sound reason. But he was a loyal employee at the Institute, and he represented the test’s commissioner, and so he would not publicly express such reservations. “What’s the test for?” I asked. “Even if I knew, I couldn’t tell you. That’s not going to change. I suggest you make your peace with it. You just do your thing, and get some fresh Swiss air. It might do you good.” I sensed this was his way of acknowledging he had known about my illness. Afterwards he said nothing, just focused on smoking. “How do I get to the convent from here?” I asked him after a while. Without a word, he took out a notepad and drew me a sketch of the shortcut. * It was true: the way down to the convent was an excellent shortcut, some twenty minutes walking quickly, zigzagging between pastures. You had to pass through a couple of cattle gates and, several times, squeeze in alongside the fences’ electrical cables. It took me a moment to say hello to the horses, who, stunned by the spring sun, stood motionless in the melting snow, as though contemplating that climatic contradiction and trying to find in their big slow brains some sort of synthesis. [[{"fid":"6704756","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]] Sister Anna let me in wearing a white apron—she and Swati had been cleaning. There were boxes of documents lying on the pews in the hallway. The sisters were dusting them off and then transferring them to a cart so that they could be taken downstairs. The prioress seemed eager to abandon this task and to take me on a ride in the brand new elevator. We went up and down several times, covering a distance of one floor between the residential part of the convent and the chapel. I found the two illuminated buttons—up and down—soothing: there are never as many options as we think there are, and an awareness of that fact should bring relief. Next Sister Anna showed me the cloister, and, spreading out her hands, the old course of the latticework that once stood as the border between the two worlds. “We would sit here, and visitors would sit over there. The priest would even take our confessions through that grating, and we’d talk with guests through it—can you believe that? As late as the sixties. We felt as though we were animals in God’s zoo. Each year a photographer would come to take our picture—through the screen.” She showed me the photographs, displayed in thin little frames that hung tightly packed together, one after the next, all featuring a group of women wearing habits, posing. Some sat, while others stood behind them. In the center was the mother superior, who always, by some miracle, looked a little bigger, a little more solid, than the rest. The latticework cut across some of their bodies, though it seemed the photographer always tried to prevent it from passing over their faces. The farther back in time I went, going down the hall, the more nuns there were in the pictures, the more distinct their habits and veils became. They took over the space in such a way that by the end the women’s faces were like grains of rice scattered over a graphite-colored tablecloth. I examined up close those faces that no longer existed and envied them the fact that every single one of these women had had one particular day in her life when God had spoken to her, had told her that he wanted her all to himself. I had never been religious and had never felt—even remotely—the metaphysical presence of God. The convent was founded in 1611, when two Capuchin nuns from the north had arrived in this mountain valley that was near a small village. They had secured safe conduct from the pope, and they had adherents among the wealthy. Over the course of two years, they managed to raise the money, and in the spring of 1613, construction began. First there was a small building with cells for the sisters and an administrative section, though this latter expanded at a dizzying pace. A hundred years later, the whole area—the valley and the forests around it—belonged to the nuns. A small town grew up around the convent, partially dependent upon the convent’s economy. A fine location on the lake, along the road, meant that trade flourished and local residents got rich. The rules allowed some of the nuns, called external sisters, to maintain even intensive contact with the world; the rest, the internal sisters, did not leave the cloister and only very rarely appeared behind the latticework like the unpredictable, mystical force behind that eternal game of tic-tac-toe. Huddled under their cornettes, those cloistered sisters stayed in a state of never-ending prayer, their lips continually moving, their bodies clinging slavishly to the wooden floor of the chapel, sprawled out in the shape of the cross. They were defenseless against the stream of grace that ensured that alpine place uninterrupted good fortune in commerce and the nuns perpetual growth of the convent’s holdings. Perhaps it was upon these devout interns that God’s eye rested, inside that triangular crack in the heavens that would later wind up on the one-dollar bill. The externs conducted the convent’s business, their fingers stained from the ink in which they dipped their pens as they entered into their books the latest deliveries of eggs, meat or linen, or as they broke down payments made to the construction workers building the new shelter for the elderly and indigent or to the cobblers who made the orphans shoes. Sister Anna told me about all this as one narrates a family—attached and affectionate, forgiving her ancestresses their sins of small-mindedness, their exaggerated interest in making deals. The convent expanded like a fantastically prosperous commercial enterprise and came into the possession of the entire terrain below it, all the way to the lake. The fall of that religious family didn’t occur until the twentieth century, after the war. The town was bulging at the seams, increasingly in need of more land for villas and public buildings, and people were losing their faith. Since 1968, the convent had seen no new nuns, with the obvious exception of Swati. When Sister Anna had become prioress in 1990, there had been thirty-seven of them. As a result of sales intended to shore up the diminishing finances of the convent, its huge holdings dwindled, and as of today, they consisted exclusively of the one building where the sisters lived. The rest of their land had been leased to several farmers, with cows grazing it now. Their garden was tended by the owner of a health food store; in return for vegetables and milk, the sisters permitted the use of the convent’s name on the products he sold. It turned out, too, that they recognized only too late the possibilities arising from the mercantile blessing that was convent recipes. That pie had long since been divided between the Benedictines, the Cistercians, the Fatebenefratelli and others, who, sensing potential competition from the nuns, banded together in masculine solidarity and made sure the sisters had no share there. They also failed to transform the convent into a profitable co-op. The separate building next to the church was surrendered to an elementary school, while the littler building by the garden now contained a hostel overseen by the town. It was thanks to the monies paid to them in rent that the sisters were able, the previous year, to install the glass elevator to the second floor, since it was harder and harder for them to get up and down the narrow stone stairs. Now, several times a day, they could be seen crowding into that glass box, covering the yards that separated first from second floor. As she recounted all this, the prioress also showed me around the convent, omitting no nook. I followed her, inhaling the fragrance of her habit—it smelled of the inside of a wardrobe that for many years had hosted lavender sachets. In the pleasant sense of security she gave, I was ready to be convinced to just stay here for the time I had left, instead of sticking electrodes to children’s skulls. It felt as though the air around Sister Anna was vibrating, like she might be ringed by some warm halo. If only she could catch it and distribute it into jars—they’d no doubt make a fortune that way. She led me briskly down squeaky-clean hallways redolent of floor polish, crowded with doors and mezzanines and alcoves holding shiny saintly statuettes. I got lost fast in that labyrinth. I made sure to remember the galleries of ancestral portraits, the prioresses who looked so much alike they might as well have been clones, and the inscription over the entrance to the inner chapel, hewn in thick Schwabacher: “Wie geschrieben stehet: Der erste Mensch Adam ist gemacht mit einer Seele die dem Leib ein thierlich leben gibt: und der letzte Adam mit deinem Geist der da lebendig macht.”111 Corinthians 15:45, in the Bible’s New International Version: “So it is written: ‘The first man Adam became a living being’; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit.” The floor creaked beneath our feet as our fingers slid over the smoothed spins of handrails and handles become, over time, the inverses of palms. Suddenly we were on the second floor, in something like a large loft space. The wooden floor was worn to the bone, though then I wondered if it had ever been painted. This was where their laundry dried; amidst the racks draped in sheets and covers, I caught sight of Sister Beatrix and Sister Ingeborg. They were sitting with needles in their hands, reattaching buttons lost in the wash. Their arthritically gnarled fingers struggled nobly with the buttons’ holes. “Salve, girls,” she said to them. “What do you say, is she ready to meet Oxi?” At this the old nuns livened up considerably. Frail Sister Anna even squealed like a little girl. Sister Anna went up to a little white curtain that looked innocuous enough, and in one practiced swoop had shoved it over and revealed the thing inside. “Ta-da!” she cried. A moderately sized recess was revealed, and in it, a figure, its shape unmistakably human, though shrunken and somehow inhuman at the same time. Scared, I took a step backwards. Sister Anna laughed, pleased with the effect she had achieved. She was clearly used to reactions like mine, and clearly amused by them, as well. “Meet Oxi,” she said, gazing at me watchfully but wearing an expression of triumph on her face. “My God,” I said heavily, in Polish. The expression on my face must have been a strange one: all the other sisters now burst into laughter, too. I saw the body of a human being—more precisely, a human being’s dead body, a skeleton, or maybe a mummy, sat straight up and elegantly decorated. Following my momentary terror, I began to perceive it more precisely, while behind me the sisters kept on chuckling. The entirety of the skeleton was covered in hand-knit, braided adornments. Sticking out of the eye sockets were great semi-precious stones; resting atop the bare skull, a decorative cap, beaded yarn crocheted. Around his neck there was an embroidered stock tie of thin batiste, which must have been snow white once, now sullied, like a tuft of filthy autumn fog. Here and there his desiccated skin showed through from underneath the fabric of the clothes he wore, though these were mostly covered by a mercifully long and exceptionally ornate eighteenth-century jacket, with ashen-silver patterns that looked like the scribblings of frost on a window pane. Lace cuffs stuck out from sleeves, almost concealing the curved and clawing hands in their arm warmers of disintegrating yarn. Arm warmers! Twisted legs encased in white stockings jammed into wrinkled slippers with metal buckles, also adorned with semi-precious stones. * We always strove to follow the recommendation that researchers not become emotionally involved in their relationships with the subjects of their research. That principle suited me just fine. I would only see the children during testing. The young people followed their instructions scrupulously. They were well-behaved kids. It was only during the projective part of the test, where they had to use their imaginations, that several of them had trouble understanding what to do. Then the brainwave tracking session began, and because we were also keeping track of them while the children were sleeping, each of their rooms had to be equipped with the appropriate device, which would in each instance also need to be set up. For over a week I went nowhere, only glimpsing summer’s efflorescence from my terrace as I breathed in the herb that brought me such relief. On a fairly regular basis, Victor started joining me, which meant that my medicinal supplies were running out at an ever-higher rate. Victor told me during one of our many talks that the convent was facing closure “for biological reasons,” and he told me the story of Swati. In her wonderful, childlike naiveté, Sister Anna had read somewhere that the presence of the sacred had not diminished in India, whence the winds of history and the smoke over Auschwitz had not yet carried it away. We were sitting on the balcony of my room, resting after moving around all our devices. Victor gazed at the glowing tip of the joint and suddenly felt guilty: “I can’t keep smoking up your stash, I really can’t. This is part of your treatment. It’s pure pleasure for me.” I shrugged. “Why India? Where did she get that idea?” “Well, if you must know, I’m the one who put it in her head,” he said after a moment. “I told her that if there was any real spirituality left anywhere in the world, then it must be in India. That God had relocated there.” “Do you really believe that?” I said without thinking. The smoke that came out of my mouth formed a beautiful sphere. “Of course not. I just wanted to give her something nice to think about, to calm her down. What I didn’t take into account is that she would always rather act than think. And just like that, all by herself, at the age of seventy-whatever, Sister Anna set out for India, on a recruitment trip for the convent.” I could well imagine it—Sister Anna in her gray summer habit standing before a Delhi mosque, amidst the rickshaws’ uproar, amongst the stray dogs, the holy cows, in the dust, in the mud. It wasn’t a vision that cracked me up, exactly—marijuana had long since ceased to make me laugh—but Victor was guffawing. “She went from convent to convent, hundreds of miles, trying to find novitiates to bring back with her to Europe. And all she could poach was Swati. Can you imagine? She went hunting for nuns, in India!” * The next day I got their files on my desk. They were neat, economical and professional. They contained all the data about the children we were testing, which I had requested from Victor. Right away they struck me as strange. Instead of names, the files were labeled with symbols written on Post-Its: “Tr 1.2.2” or “JHC 1.1.2/JHC 1.1.1,” and on in the same vein. I looked over them, astonished—I was sure they had not been intended for my eyes, that Victor had brought me these files by mistake. I couldn’t understand the meaning of the code. Apart from the tables of biological parameters, there were genome tables and charts that I also couldn’t even begin to comprehend. I tried to glean from those analyses the identities of the kids under my care, but the graphs and tables made no sense to me at all—they must have been descriptive of some other, more abstract plane of truth. That must be it, I thought, Victor must have just gotten mixed up, giving me not the documents I was expecting, but rather something else. As I carried the files to his office, however, a sudden impulse brought me back, and I recorded those strange designations in the margins of an old newspaper. Then I thought I might as well take note of dates of birth. Victor’s office was empty when I set the files down on his desk. The wind in the open window rustled the slats of the blind, and it sounded like a chorus of cicadas. The following morning, I received on the internal server the information I had been requesting for so long—the interviews on environmental variables and the biographical data. Each file was now under last and first name only. Thierry B. Birthdate: 12/2/2000. Legal guardians: Swiss. Location: small town. He was a school teacher, she was a librarian. Allergies. A detailed layout of his brain studies, with mild epilepsy detected. Blood type. Basic psychological tests. A journal kept by his adoptive parents: methodical but fairly uninteresting. Dyslexia. A detailed layout of his braces. Writing samples. Photos. Schoolwork. A normal kid, being subjected to constant, thorough medical exams. Nothing about his biological parents. Miri C., 3/21/2001: same. Precise charts of her weight and height. Some sort of skin ailment—pictures, diagnoses, et cetera. Adoptive parents: middle-class, he a small business owner, she a painter. Childhood drawings. Numerous references to some other documents, meticulously numbered, classified. The twins Jules and Max, birthdate 9/9/2001. Birthplace: Bavaria. Adoptive parents: businesspeople, owners of some textile factories, upper middle class. Mention made of certain perinatal complications, hence the low Apgar score in both. Jules had a superb musical ear, was attending music school. Max had been in a traffic accident when he was seven—hit by a car, complicated leg fractures, average musical abilities. Before I could think about what I was doing, my hand had reached out for the previous day’s notes around the edges of the newspaper. I found the twins’ birthdate under the codes Fr 1.1.2 and Fr 1.1.1., and from there it was easy enough. Adrian T., born 5/29/2000, code—based on that date—Jn 1.2.1. From Lausanne. Adoptive parents: officials. The boy had had problems with the law. Background and environment interview. Police report. The incident had involved breaking into a swimming pool, some property destruction. Several siblings. Eva H., code Tr 1.1.1. Adoptive parents divorced when she was nine years old. She was brought up by her mother, a teacher. Great student, on the basketball team. Interested in film. Writes poetry. Musical abilities. Treated for juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. I scanned, amazed by the level of detail in the reports, X-rays of ordinary adolescent lives from so many angles it almost seemed as though these people were being groomed to become spies, or geniuses—or the ones who would start the revolution. * Sister Anna gave me lease to photograph Oxi—every little element of him immortalized in his ongoing process of decay. I had the pictures developed at the drugstore in the little town, and I put some of them up over my desk. Now all I had to do was glance up in order to admire the artistry of many generations of nuns who had, with the buoyancy of children, colonized every square centimeter of the corpse, striving to conceal the threat of death. A button. Some lace. Drawn thread work. Decorative stitching, appliqué, tiny pom-pom, cuff, little collar, some ruffles at the neck, a sequin, a bead. Desperate proofs of life. [[{"fid":"6704761","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"2":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"2"}}]] I was told at the pharmacy I would need to wait a few days to get more of my medicine, so I quietly figured out a way to find a local dealer, from whom I purchased several portions. They were strong, powerful—I had to mix them with tobacco. Since the chemo, the pains had all but disappeared, but there remained my fear of them, twisted up somewhere inside me like metal springs that might at any moment burst forth and rip apart my body, leaving it in shreds. When I was smoking, they metamorphosed into paper snakes, and the world got full of signs, and things distantly removed from one another seemed to be sending one another information, particular signals, linking meanings together, tying up relationships. Everything gave everything a knowing wink. It was a very satiating state for the world to be in—you could take your fill of that world. I went through two rounds of chemotherapy, and I couldn’t sleep. I could not regain control over my own body—the only strength I had left was the strength of my fear. The doctor said: from three months to three years. I knew it would do me good to concentrate on something, and that’s why I came here; not only because of the money, although in my situation, that kind of money might turn out to be the thing that could extend my life. Conducting my tests didn’t require I be in especially great shape. I could do it almost automatically. Now, every morning, while the children took their classes, I would get up early and head down to the convent. On one such day, towards the end of May, I saw, sitting alone at the edge of the soccer field, Miri. She told me she had gotten her period, and that she’d been dismissed from PE. I noticed she was wearing blue—light blue jeans, a light blue shirt and light blue sneakers. She was the color of the sky. I didn’t know what to say. I simply took a step towards her. “You seem sad,” she said, a touch of combat in her tone. “All the time, even when you’re smiling.” She had caught me in the act, as in solitude I had been dismantling my face’s usual expression of self-confidence. I looked at her small, light, almost avian body, which slipped nimbly off the fence, almost giving the impression of weightlessness. She said she wished she could go home now. That she missed her parents and her dog. There she had her own room, and here she had to share a room with Eva. She had always yearned for siblings, but now she saw she found other people to be a nuisance. “You’re looking for something when you test us. We’re also trying to figure out why it is we’re here. I’m smart enough, I can put two and two together. I suspect it has something to do with the fact we are adopted. Maybe we’re carrying some type of gene. What is it you see when you look at us? You really see something so strange about us? What could I have in common with the others? Nothing.” She walked with me a while, and we started talking about school. She was going to music school, she played the violin. She also told me something interesting: she liked days of mourning—and these were coming more and more often now, with environmental disasters and attacks—because then the media would play only mournful music. Often everything irritated her, and she felt the world was too big, so those gloomy days were a kind of respite. People ought to dedicate a little bit of thought to themselves. She loved Handel, particularly his “Largo,” which Lisa Gerard had once sung. And Mahler, most of all what he wrote when his children died. I smiled without thinking. Such a melancholy girl. “Isn’t that why you’re drawn to me?” She walked with me until we reached the place where the horses grazed. Along the way she ripped off dandelion heads and scattered the still-soft seeds, premature, into the air. “You wear a wig, right?” she said suddenly, not looking at me. “You’re sick. You’re dying.” Her words hit me square in the chest. I could feel my eyes filling with tears, so I turned and started walking faster, by myself now, down to the convent. * My late mornings in the convent, when the children had their classes, tended to soothe me. I would feel good in the company of these women, who were both conciliatory and reconciled to life. Over coffee, the sisters’ inefficient fingers separating out their miniature waste restored order. So it would be, too, with me: soon fingers would strip me down to my primary components, and all that had comprised me would now be put back in its own place—a kind of final recycling. Of the cream for the coffee, following this ritual of absolution, there would be parts that no longer had anything to do with one another, becoming separate, falling under different categories now. Gone were taste and consistence. Gone where? Where was that thing that just a moment ago they had still made up together, harmonious? We would sit in the kitchen, where Sister Anna—often vanishing into digressions, only to emerge again elsewhere—would respond to my somewhat prying inquiries. I never knew where the braided locks of her memory would lead us. In those moments, she would remind me of my mother, who talked in the same way—meandering, weaving together many strands; this was a wonderful malady of old women, covering the world in one vast quilt of stories within stories. The silent presence of some of the other sisters, always occupied with some small task, caused me to take these nuns as guarantors of truth, time’s accountants. All of Oxi’s information was recorded in the convent’s chronicles. At my request, Sister Anna finally agreed to seek out the corresponding volume. Now she splayed it atop the table in the kitchen where we drank coffee. She found the exact date: February 28, 1629. That day, the sisters and all their denizens crowded down the southern road into town, awaiting the return of the envoys from Rome. Just before dark, a modest retinue of men on horses appeared from beyond the mountain, behind the retinue a wooden wagon fitted out with colorful, if somewhat soiled and soaked material, beneath which, attached with leather straps, lay a coffin. What was left of wreaths trailed behind the wagon in the snow; the men were frozen and exhausted. The crowd, led by the Bürgermeister and a bishop invited expressly for this purpose, symbolically presented the saint with a key to the city. Boys in white surplices sang an endlessly practiced welcome song and—since this all took place in a disgusting winter month, and there were no flowers to properly honor and receive such an extraordinary gift—spruce branches were thrown under the wagon’s wheels. That same evening a solemn mass took place. Then came the announcement: Saint Auxentius would be put on display after mass on the following Sunday—in other words, in three days’ time. Until then, the sisters’ task would be to tidy and ready the relics, to put them in order after their long, hard trip. The sisters were eager to peer inside the coffin. But the sight that greeted them was one of horror. Instinctively, they recoiled. What had they expected? In what sorts of wonderments had their imagination attired this martyr whom they had never even heard of before? What could they have expected to see, these poor Capuchins, freezing in their cells without heating, in arm warmers tugged down to cover parts of their chapped hands, in thick wool stockings underneath their habits? A muffled sigh of disappointment escaped up to the chapel’s ceiling. Saint Auxentius was just an ordinary corpse, albeit quite dried out by now, sort of neat, and slick somehow, although his bared teeth and empty eye sockets were certainly sources of terror, or, at the very least, revulsion. Sister Anna said three days turned out not to be enough. Since that time the subsequent sisters had tended to the body of the deceased for over three hundred years. They’d tamed its terror with affectionate nicknames, little jokes and decorations. She herself had crocheted him cuffs when she was young still, since the ones he’d had had all but disintegrated with age. That was the last time the saint’s outfit had been altered. Swati, in spite of her vow of obedience, refused to refresh the mummy’s wardrobe, and Sister Anna had been unable to fault her for this. Once I was back in my room, I got online and stayed on for a while. I learned that when in the sixteenth century Rome had begun to be intensively expanded, digging the foundations of new homes had often revealed Roman catacombs, and in them, human remains. It turned out, of course, that like any old city, Rome had been built upon graves; now the workers’ pickaxes broke through the tops of tombs, letting daylight seep into them for the first time in many hundreds of years. People also began breaking into the catacombs, their inflamed imaginations shrouding them in mysterious tales. Though who but Christian martyrs could it be, buried there? Evenly distributed along the shelves, the dead were reminiscent of some valuable good, bottles of the finest wine, maturing over years in order to attain its particular qualities. The dead were no longer bothered by time’s acts of entropy, the destructive part of it that turned human faces into skulls and human bodies into skeletons. Quite the opposite: once bodies had shriveled and rotted, they moved on to a higher order, getting more delicate, no longer causing the disgust of a corpse in the midst of its disintegration, but rather, as mummies, inspiring admiration and respect. The newly discovered necropolises posed a problem. There were efforts to rebury the remains that had been removed from them, but their numbers were too great—all lovely, well-preserved mummified bodies and elegant skeletons, complete, arranged in graceful poses. The eyes soon grew accustomed to their sight, and then—as was usual in humans—started to differentiate and distinguish the most special among them, the most beautiful, the most harmonious, the best preserved, and from the revelation of their particular beauty it wasn’t much of a leap to their acquiring, on account of the same, exceptional value. In one letter, the stern and gloomy Pope Gregory XIII deliberated over this unexpected abundance of the dead: “We feel as though this whole army has arisen from the ground in these challenging times, and we, instead of repaying it this service, shove it back down into the darkness of the grave. In today’s times, terrible for the true faith, as apostasy closes on us from every side, and of no use are fire and sword against the hideous heresy of Lutheranism, the dead, too, could go to battle…” These words in mind, one of the papal officials (which of them exactly is not known; there is talk of a Father Verdiani, much-trusted by the pope, and with a pretty good nose for profit) found employment for thousands of the dead. Soon a special office was established; gathered in it were highly promising, highly capable and highly imaginative clerics. Also brought in were special task forces of nuns, silent, hunched over, who patiently cleaned off the corpses of all that had settled upon them over the centuries. All this work was kept under the strictest confidence. And then the saints were ready to make their public debuts, carefully arranged in modest coffins, cleansed of dust and spider webs, of weeds and clumps of earth, neatly covered in swathes of clean fabric. Each came with a registry book that contained its name and origins, a thoroughly transcribed biography and the circumstances of the martyrdom, as well as attributes and the range of the martyr’s posthumous acts to indicate what type of intercession one might request of it, what types of prayers to send its way. Every saint had his own attributes, his own domain, just like the protagonists of video games today. This one provided courage, that one luck. This one interceded on behalf of drunkards, that one combatted rodents… Orders from all across Europe poured in. Every supplication sent to the pope and every appeal to his supreme sacred power quickly tied into a request for a holy relic to be sent, in exchange for some reasonable offering. To the plundered churches, which were trying to get back off the ground after their rape by the Protestants, such a relic lent immediate prestige, brought the crowds in under the sanctuary’s roof and enabled them to immerse themselves in the glow of long-lost holy martyrdom, reminding them that this early world is nothing in comparison with the Kingdom of the Lord. And that memento mori. The process of rehoming holy Roman martyrs was one that lasted many years. The office-workers, those capable, imaginative clerics, went out into the world and became nuncios and cardinals, while the hunched-over nuns died off with quiet sighs. Popes changed, all falling into the past like the pages of a calendar: Sixtus, Urban, Gregory, Innocent, Clement, Leo, Paul and Gregory again, all the way up until Pope Urban VIII. In 1629 the office for rehoming saints still existed, and in an effort to improve their work, the scribes had made up cheat sheets in the form of tables and inventories. Their purpose was not to repeat too often the same torture methods, causes of death, circumstances, last names or attributes. [[{"fid":"6704766","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"3":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"3"}}]] The next day, Sister Anna told me that she had once been amazed to hear the story of a saint from a church at some several hundred miles’ remove from the convent here. All of a sudden she felt awful: that other saint, whose name was Rius, had a life story and a martyrdom strikingly similar to their own Auxentius’. Evidently the authors of the registry books had run out of ideas. She said, too, that she had once come across a certain work, written later, in the twentieth century, that had discussed the phenomenon of Holy Roman martyrs in a scholarly way, and from reading it she had learned that over the course of all those decades certain trends—if the term could be permitted—had come and gone, some coming back into fashion again and again. For example, towards the end of the sixteenth century, there were a lot of saints impaled in just a few years, and each time the description of the torment was so vivid and juicy, the literary talent of the anonymous office-worker so great, that any reader would experience pangs of horror as they read. At the same time, the female saints tended to mostly suffer the same fate of having their breasts cut off, these then turning into their attributes. In general, they held them out before their bodies on a tray. In the second decade of the seventeenth century, decapitations were popular. Severed heads would miraculously seek out headless bodies, and miraculously they’d unite. “You’re a psychologist, after all,” she said to me, “so you must understand them perfectly, these inventors of martyrdoms. Even in coming up with the worst kinds of horrors, there must be a little bit of pleasure to be found for the writer, right?” I said I thought the mere awareness of the existence of this whole realm of the world that was worse than the lot that had fallen to us could be healing. “That itself ought to inspire out greatest, inexpressible gratitude towards our Creator,” she replied. With time, the names became increasingly eccentric—of course the reserves of the more popular, more common names had long since been exhausted. Now there were women saints like Ossiana, Magdentia, Hamartia, Angustia or Violanta, and among the men there were Abhorentius, Milruppo and Quintilian, as well as Saint Auxentius, who, early on in the spring of 1629, made his way to the convent. * “Do you know what they’re doing up there?” I asked Sister Anna the next time I went down to the convent, pointing to the Institute, visible through the window as a high-up speck. They had heard they were doing some important research. But that was it. We were folding bedding, using a technique well known around the world, wherever there were duvet covers, pillowcases and sheets—we stood opposite one another and stretched out at a diagonal those great rectangles of linen and cotton so that they’d regain their shapes after washing. Rapidly, in tandem, we established a whole ritual: diagonal at first, then creases at the sides and smoothing them out with short, fast tugs, followed by folding them in half and then diagonally again, in order to finally take a couple of steps towards each other and thus put the bedding into an elegant package. And then again. “We have a hunch about what’s going on, but that’s not the same as knowing,” she said. She always spoke of herself in the plural. After all these years, her identity was monastic, collective. “Be easy, child,” she added, and it sounded almost tender. “The church always wants what’s best.” Oxi gazed at us with his eyes that were semi-precious stones sticking out of his sockets, padded with completely faded silk meant to resemble eyelids. His crimson eyebrows, made of gems, were raised in a cool surprise that was verging on suspicion. * By night, the internet led me down other, even more garish paths, whether I wanted it to or not. The posthumous histories of the saints, or rather, that of their earthly remains—the adoration of fingers, bones, locks of hair, hearts ripped out of bodies, severed heads. The quartered Adalbert of Prague, distributed in relic form amongst churches and monasteries and convents. The blood of Saint Januarius, which regularly underwent enigmatic chemical transformations, altering its state and properties. And also thefts of holy bodies, parceling out corpses as relics, miraculously multiplying hearts, hands, even the foreskins of a tiny Jesus—sacrum preputium. Archived pages of an auction site were offering pieces of the bodies of saints. The first one that really jumped out at me was a reliquary with the remains of John of Capistrano, which were available on Allegro for the price of 680 zlotys. Finally, I found our hero from the attic drying room. Saint Auxentius the martyr had been a lion coach whose lions had been fed Christians under Nero. One night one of the lions spoke to him in a human voice. And the voice was that of Jesus Christ himself. It wasn’t written what the lion said in the voice of Christ, but by morning Auxentius had converted to the Christian faith, released the lions into a forest outside of town, though he himself was captured. The former executioner was now the one condemned to death. The lions were all caught again, and Auxentius, along with other Christians, was thrown to them to be devoured. But the lions wouldn’t lay their paws upon their former master, so in the end he died by dagger, at the hands of an assassin of Nero’s, while the lions were slain with swords. After his death, Auxentius’ body was spirited away by Christians and buried in secret in the catacombs. * “I just stood in front of the hotel, afraid to take another step,” said Sister Anna. We were sitting in the big empty kitchen. The other nuns had already gone out of the room, and gone, too, were the meticulously separated remains of their morning coffee. She’d perched on the windowsill and looked remarkably young. “It was steamy and hot—about what you’d expect for India. My light traveling habit stuck to my body. I felt like I was paralyzed, because what I saw was terrifying me.” For a moment she was silent, searching for the words. “The enormity of that poverty, that desperate struggle to survive, that cruelty. Dogs, cows, people, the rickshaw drivers with their fierce dark faces, the crippled beggars. It all seemed to be endowed with life by force, against the will of those creatures who were condemned to life, as though that variety of life were a downfall, a punishment.” She turned to the window, and then she said, without looking at me: “I think I committed the greatest sin there, and I’m not sure whether or not it’s been forgiven, although I’ve done penance for it, of course. The priest who heard my confession evidently didn’t understand what it was I’d told him.” She looked out the window. “The sacred that had been promised me was not present there. I found nothing that might justify all of that pain. What I beheld was a mechanical world, a biological world, like an anthill organized into established orders that were dumb and inert. I discovered something terrible there. May God forgive me.” Only now did she look at me, and it was as though she were seeking affirmation. “I went back to the hotel and just sat there the whole day. I couldn’t even pray. The next day, in keeping with the plan, some sisters from a convent outside of town came in to get me, and then they took me to their place. We drove through a dried-out orange space filled with trash and shriveled, dried-up trees. We kept silent, and I think the sisters understood what I was going through. Perhaps they had been through it, as well. Somewhere along the road I noticed some little hills going along the horizon, each fifteen yards or so from the next. The sisters told me it was a cemetery for holy cows, but I didn’t get what they meant. I asked them to repeat it. They said that there the untouchables brought the corpses of holy cows so that they wouldn’t pollute the city. They would simply leave them in the scorching sun and let nature do its thing. I asked if we could stop, and I went up in amazement to these mounds that I expected to be remains, skin and bones dried by the sun. From up close, however, you saw something else entirely: twisted, half-digested plastic bags, brand names still legible, shoelaces, rubber bands, screw-tops, containers. No organic digestive fluid could take on advanced human chemistry. The cows ate trash, and unable to digest it, they carried it around in their stomachs. That’s all that’s left of the cows, I was told. The body disappears, eaten by insects and scavengers. What’s left is what’s eternal. Trash.” * I went to say goodbye to the sisters a few days before my departure. I still needed to sort through some papers, pack up the equipment and make my final calculations. The last image I made sure to retain from the convent was the sight of the old women pressed into the glass box of the elevator heading up for mass—Bosch’s lady denizens of paradise making the journey into the beyond, the ends of time. Returning to the Institute, walking in the balks as I made my way uphill, I got an idea, clear and simple, a matter-of-fact response to the questions that had been plaguing me since my arrival, the questions no one had been willing to answer, which all boiled down to: what was this testing I was participating in like an obedient, well-paid soldier? And my thought was at once simple and insane, which made me believe it might actually be correct. I remembered the innocent question Miri had asked that first day, when I had gone to meet them: “Didn’t you want to clone him? They say they do it all the time in China.” I spread out the children’s folders in front of me and lit my joint. I looked at their birthdates, provided with hour and place, as though part of the test involved giving them their horoscope. Who knows, maybe that was part of the plan as well. I added, in pencil, those mysterious codes to each date, each last name. All the testing itself had already been done, and I’d already sketched out their profiles. I was just waiting on the final data, which I usually received in graphic form as a dozen or so prognostic lines, more or less similar to one another. The computer would calculate all the characteristics and then crystalize them around the axes it created for them. The basic graph was thus a kind of tree with branches of differing widths. The fattest, most fully realized branches were the most probable ones. In my time I had seen trees that looked like sprawling baobabs with hundreds of twig-possibilities. I had also seen those that were dominated by a single thick branch. But it was always children—fine, bright, human children—transformed into vegetable forms. I flipped through the files, sorting out the data groups, when suddenly I was seized by pain—the pain I knew well by now, that reminded of itself from time to time, like a kind of guard overseeing things, keeping them in order. Then, on the verge of pain, just before the arrival of the relief I anticipated, the files and symbols, dates and labels used to designate the tested teenagers, and the inscription in the convent over the door, and Dani’s smile, the black bit of truffle, and Miri’s eyes filled with concern when she asked me about my dead dog—all of it started to roll in my mind like a ball of sticky snow, and everything it picked up on its way made it get even bigger, even more tightly packed. The matter was becoming clear. I just wasn’t sure what the numbers after the letters meant, maybe the number of the trial or some versions of the experiment. Miri was Cl 1.2.1, Jules Fr 1.1.1 and Max Fr 1.1.2. Hannah was Chl 1.1.1, Amelia and Julia Hd 1.2.2 and Hd 1.2.1, Eva Tr 1.1.1, Vito and Otto JHC 1.1.2/JHC 1.1.1, Adrian Jn 1.2.1. Thierry JC 1.1.1. So it was simple. Saint Clare of Assisi, a body with no traces of decay, exhibited since the late nineteenth century in a glass cabinet in the Basilica of Saint Clare. A wide range of relics, well-preserved light hair. Saint Francis, a skeleton in good shape, in the Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi. Saint Hedwig of Silesia, another skeleton in fine shape, relics distributed by the Krakow diocese, a bone from the ring finger in a church in western Poland. A piece of a bone of Saint Hildegarde. Bits of the body of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, known as the Little Flower, who never quit making pilgrimages all over the world. And three more I didn’t recognize, but all three could be deduced quite quickly, with just a few clicks. I felt as though, in the game of tic-tac-toe, I was completing my drawing of a small, beautiful circle inside the crucial box. * I was packed and ready in the morning, and I had called the same cab that had brought me here over a month before. Awaiting it in front of the school, I saw Miri sitting on the fence. She smiled, and I went up to her. I didn’t say anything because I was too moved to. I just looked at her concerned, innocent child’s face, at her blush. “Clare?” I finally said, almost inaudibly. She didn’t seem surprised at all when after a moment’s hesitation I took her hand and laid it on my forehead. It took her a few seconds to fully understand, and then she also touched my eyes and ears, and then she put both of her hands upon my heart, exactly where I needed them the most. Jennifer Croft is the recipient of Cullman, Fulbright, PEN, MacDowell and NEA grants and fellowships, as well as the inaugural Michael Henry Heim Prize for Translation, the 2018 Found in Translation Award, the 2018 Man Booker International Prize and a Tin House Scholarship for her novel Homesick, originally written in Spanish, forthcoming in English from Unnamed Press in September and in Spanish from Entropía in 2020. She holds a PhD in Comparative Literary Studies from Northwestern University and an MFA in Literary Translation from the University of Iowa.
The Year in Gritty: Birth of a New God

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

What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2018? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. Gritty is the dumb and ugly hockey mascot revealed by the Philadelphia Flyers on September 24 of this cursed year. Nothing was expected of it (of him?), beyond some local news coverage, some local outrage on Sports Twitter. But the world took notice, because Gritty is the visual and physical embodiment of the epic troll: weird on purpose, both frightening and idiotic, at turns lovable and violent, so “on brand” as to be stubbornly memorable even when you’d rather forget. At seven feet tall and with a head made of wild orange hair dotted with googly eyes, Gritty is an epic troll. The Era picks its heroes and icons, and the people tasked with typing these “The Year In …” think pieces are left to come up with excuses for our society’s failings, the rapid de-evolution of Western Civilization, the lowness of our culture. And it doesn’t matter. Gritty will win because Gritty already won. That feeling you had when you first saw Gritty? That’s what it felt like when people first saw Elvis Presley on TV, or Darth Vader in a movie theater, or Joan of Arc leading the charge on Orléans in 1429, or when a sin-jowled Nixon punched his stubby V-sign fingers into the air before a helicopter hauled him away from the White House. Dread, love, fear, wonder, disgust. Whatever the emotion, it comes with the mark of things forever changed. Does Gritty look and act like the meth-lab offspring of Doug Ford and Donald Trump? Yes, this is undeniably true. Is Gritty vulgar and foul-tempered? Watch the monster in ecstasy as he fondles his huge belly, or driven into a rage by a Mites On Ice child player during intermission. (Gritty picked up that kid and threw him in the penalty box, the same penalty box that Gritty destroyed in a separate fury on October 23.) With each wantonly fireable offense—viciously bodychecking the goalies, shooting Flyers’ promotions staff in the back with the T-shirt gun, beating up Rangers fans after dumping popcorn in their hair, threatening to murder the Pittsburgh Penguins’ mascot—Gritty’s fame and influence grows. It is here where the Ford Nation/Deplorables parallels are impossible to deny. Yet Gritty’s vile behavior is evidence not of privilege or fake populism, but of True Grit. It doesn’t matter that he’s the mascot for a $750-million NHL franchise. Gritty immediately transcended his late-capitalism brand origins. As the socialist quarterly Jacobin announced just days after the mascot’s debut: “Gritty is a worker.” The inevitable Philadelphia protests timed for Trump’s visit on October 2 witnessed the birth of Gritty as an anti-billionaire working-class street brawler. If Trump finally allowed the racists and nationalists to start saying the quiet parts loud, Gritty gave the New Left permission to wear guillotine T-shirts they’d previously only “liked” on @dasharez0ne's Twitter feed, and the gall to demand and fight for a Green New Deal, to free the American left from asking permission anymore. Not for health care, not for good-paying jobs, not for free college, not for justice. Of course Gritty can take down the soft boys of the Alt-Right, but his ultimate goal (beyond eating Zamboni snow) is a joyfully chaotic destruction of Late Capitalism and its long-protected vulture class. Of course the mascot belongs to Philadelphia, the monster’s personality being the beloved stereotype of the chip-on-the-shoulder loud-mouth drunken Flyers’ fan (or player) living off Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey and cheese steaks and pills stolen from grandma. Brian Allen, a commercial artist and Penn State alumnus with a retro comic-book style, was contracted to come up with the mascot and presented 20 sketches. Flyers’ management “picked a big dumpy monster I had drawn as the starting point,” Allen said. Of course it was the starting point. Gritty was born of a Jungian vision. The artist is the weapon of the muse. And, as designed and intended, the instant revulsion shown for this “ghastly empty-eyed muppet” on global social media made him instantly and forever embraced by his hometown, a city where the trash is never picked up, a city that bombed itself, a city that calls itself the birthplace of liberty. Within weeks of his birth, or unearthing, there was an official proclamation from the Philadelphia City Council: “WHEREAS, Gritty may be a hideous monster, but he is our hideous monster.” The tattoo parlors were already doing a brisk business in garish Gritty designs. The jack o’lanterns hurled by Philadelphia’s street urchins this past Halloween were mostly carved with variations of Gritty’s death grin. But the city now shares their deranged hockey monster with the world, with the rise of the new global left. The faux-populist horrors of recent years have seen occasional calls for the leftist and socialist opposition to adopt Trumpian behavior, to elevate cretins and scumbags to positions of leadership. Human disasters such as Michael Avenatti—who insanely believed his legal representation of one of Trump’s adult-actress mistresses made him eligible for the Democratic presidential nomination—are evidence of why out-Trumping Trump or out-Fording the Fords never works when your cause is the Good Cause, the moral one, the one that will prevail if we as a species will continue our civilization here on this landfill-covered melting planet. Gritty gives us an out: We don’t have to be monsters, but we can have a monster as our god. A god of justice, a god of righteous vengeance, a god of fire and fury, a god of Saturnalian fun. This is why Gritty stirs something deep within the souls of people long divorced from the old religions, which have weakened and splintered into identity camps of mealy-mouthed do-gooders or dumb extremists, a realm where nobody actually believes any of it. Gritty asks for nothing but Total Faith, faith that this spirit of chaos and working-class strength and wild ceremony can be channeled into action, everywhere. You can’t say you want to see Trump on the block without having bad-faith fascists getting you banned on Twitter, but you can get a tattoo with Gritty throwing Trump in the penalty box (which contains a guillotine). You can put a laughing, manic, fist-waving Gritty on your protest signs and then use those signs (in self-defense!) to smash the neo-Nazis on the street and the Koch brothers at the ballot box. Like the Viking berserkers of old giving themselves over to the Mystic Bear Warrior before fearlessly going to battle, for all of those today fighting the Oppressor, the spirit of Gritty is there. [[{"fid":"6704711","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]] *** Thank you, as always, for reading. Hazlitt will return in January.
The Year in Thrift

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

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

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

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

Should we not be talking more openly about the desperate need for black and brown mothers to be included in the conversation about what motherhood looks like in 2018?

What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2018? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. I always imagined I would have children, but less as a deeply ingrained maternal desire and more as part of a childhood fantasy about how I would escape myself. While the outline of my childhood was being sketched by the alienation of immigration and the dysfunction of divorce, I began to idolize the white families I saw on television. Their lives stood in such stark contrast to my own, it was hard not to be at first agonized and then mesmerized by their wholesome routines, their double incomes and their simple lives untouched by racism, poverty, violence and instability. I became especially envious and enamoured of the mothers, women who were unfazed and unrattled by the cruelty of life. Like Maggie Seaver, whose easy laugh was never betrayed by the sinking sobriety of unpaid bills, or Angela Bower, whose conversations about sex or dating were free from the stifling shadow of cultural shame. They were women whose freedom was always underscored by the lightness of their presence and the precision with which their domestic problems resolved themselves in a half hour. And most importantly, they were so completely different from my own mother, whose heaviness could fill a room. Who struggled to make marriage and motherhood work, worlds away from her own mother and anything that resembled familiarity or stability. As immigrants, we seemed to live just out of frame. There was nobody on TV who looked like me and definitely nobody on TV who looked like my mother. Instead of glistening white Nancy Meyers kitchens that served as the familial centerpiece of large detached homes, our cramped kitchens tended to be situated in a funny corner in the kind of purpose-built apartments that are manufactured in bulk. There were no bake sales or PTA meetings or heart-to-hearts set to treacly elevator music and resolved with a hug. My childhood was loud and chaotic and messy. It seemed like the only way out of my problems was through a middle-class family of my own, one that at least mimicked the class and race of the ones I’d been escaping with on television.   Now, two decades later, I am a mother myself, grasping for time and money, alienated by the oppressive barriers of my once escapist fantasy. And asking why the lens of modern motherhood is still so pointedly white-washed. When maternal outcomes for women of colour are three times more dire than for white women, should we not be talking more openly about the desperate need for black and brown mothers to be centred in the conversation about what motherhood looks like in 2018?  Even as we redefine representation, even as social media has democratized who gets to be seen and heard, why do none of the mothers on TV look like me? Why are the popular Facebook groups and Instagram accounts like Milky Mommas, CupofJo, Dooce or MommyShorts—modern outlets for connection between millennial mothers—still overwhelmingly run by and representing middle-class white women? Where the matriarchs of outdated television shows once represented the ideals of suburban motherhood, these new digital outlets embrace a neo-liberal “Lean In” mentality. A girlboss motherhood that prides itself on the type of natural, organic, stress-free, Pinterested parenting that can be easily and quantifiably commodified.   * In every conceivable way, your first pregnancy is an act of complete surrender to the unknown. Nearly every day brings an alien emotion or sensation that you simply have to give in to. And you shoulder those seemingly endless new feelings knowing it’s all leading up to this monumental moment that you only vaguely understand. Towards the end of my pregnancy the most pressing and urgent question I had for my obstetrician was, what does labour feel like? It’s an act so specific and yet so completely indescribable that the best way my own doctor could sum it up was by telling me, “When you’re in labour, trust me, you’ll know.” And, of course, she was right. When it hit, and hit is really the best way to describe that initial wave, it hit hard and fast. My water broke prematurely, so the first time we went into the hospital I described my contractions as manageable. I remember the intake nursing laughing at me and telling us to come back when I was in tears. Two hours later we returned and my face was damp not from crying, but from howling in agony. I felt completely feral and out of control. My body did not feel like my own. The waves of crushing pain erased time and space and even though I knew I was physically in the room I felt like I had fallen away from myself.  Yet those first few hours are seared in my memory as traumatic not because of the pain, but because I felt I had been robbed of my agency. Rather than focusing on bringing this baby into the world, I had been reminded that empathy is not something women of colour can take for granted and humanity is something we’re always fighting for. I had to plead and beg with my stoic white nurse, a blonde who echoed the glossy teens I envied in my TV-obsessed youth, while enduring that pain. As I bellowed for an epidural while hopelessly bouncing on a yoga ball with my husband rubbing the small of back so hard that a small friction burn was starting to form, she smugly coached me to “breathe through it.” In the end, a shift change was my salvation. Within 30 minutes of receiving a new nurse, a young black woman miraculously named Angel, I had my epidural and, finally, someone who I knew would be an advocate. Angel immediately centred my comfort and put me at ease and it felt so important and meaningful to me that my new nurse was a woman of colour, someone to whom the language of my pain was not foreign. It’s a small example of a larger problem of women’s self-advocacy in labour and delivery, starkly articulated by Serena Williams in an interview earlier this year with Vogue. In the piece, her traumatic post-natal experience. Shortly after giving birth to her daughter, the tennis player, who has a history of blood clots and was off her anticoagulants at the time, was left gasping for breath. She immediately felt something was wrong and raised the alarm about a potential pulmonary embolism. Williams knew exactly what medical tests she needed. She is one of the most famous athletes in the world, able to afford the best possible healthcare. But still, a nurse disregarded Williams’s initial outcry, delaying her access to the care she required. The close margins of her survival illustrate the betrayals of women still happening in the healthcare system in 2018. Most maternal deaths are preventable, and yet the rates of maternal death in the US continue to rise. Roughly 700 women die as a result of childbirth every year and the vast majority of those women are black. According to one report, blood clots are one of the leading causes of maternal death for black women. And yet here was Serena Williams, just narrowly avoiding becoming a deadly statistic. She was able to successfully advocate for her life, but why was it such a fight? Racial bias in the medical industry leaves women’s pain chronically undertreated, rendering us, in our most vulnerable moments, without a voice. * So where are our voices being heard? Social media, meant to be the great equalizer of stories, has been a boon for the commercialization of motherhood, creating an instantly recognizable mom brand. It’s a multi-billion-dollar industry with conferences headlined by celebrities such as Kristen Bell, multi-day affairs that promise to show women how to connect their marketing to motherhood to maximize engagement and guarantee sponsors. Only a handful of the speakers at this year’s Mom 2.0 conference are women of colour.  “We're missing the voices of moms of colour in general, and we're missing an opportunity to change perceptions and stereotypes around moms of colour,” says Bee Quammie who, feeling a glaring lack of voices that reflected her own mothering experience as a black woman, started her own blog. She’s not alone: there are upwards of four million mommy blogs in North America. But despite this statistic, in an Onalytica ranking of the top 25 US mom blogs, only four are written by women of colour, and none by non-binary or trans parents. The story of motherhood is still being overwhelmingly told, and represented, by cisgender white women. On Facebook, mom groups promise a safer space, a welcoming and communal approach to child-rearing. But even here, it’s mostly middle-class white women who gather, wondering aloud how to offer their urban spawn a “diverse” experience, describing exposure to other cultures with the same lexicon you would use to place an Amazon order. These spaces aren’t structured to facilitate intersectional conversations that reflect the reality of women of colour. When conversations in these groups turn to subjects like race and class they inevitably become polarized, pushing women who have differing experiences out of the larger online community. I’ve seen questions about what to pay for childcare turn into class-based lectures that shame and silence women who don’t fit the middle-class mould. Conversations about diversity inevitably centre white women and portray people of colour as learning opportunities for their privileged children rather than as human beings. We become otherized even in spaces that attempt community and alleyship. The alternative is to seek out specific groups that speak to our experiences as women of colour, but that can lead to narrow and solipsistic conversations that don’t foster a true exchange. When I was lying awake night after night, breastfeeding my newborn into the twilight hours, I would aimlessly scroll through my Instagram’s explore feed to keep my shrinking brain occupied. Because, during my pregnancy, I had followed a bunch of pregnancy bloggers and accounts, my explore feed was almost exclusively baby and mom-to-be content. At first it was comforting, but then it was sharply alienating. These women didn’t reflect my reality, in their glossy kitchens, with perfectly prepped organic meals and designer baby clothes and immaculately maintained post-baby bodies. They were the Mom 2.0 version of the Maggie Seavers and the Cindy Walshes. I had managed to escape the poverty of my childhood, but I no longer wanted to escape myself or the reality of parenting offered up by own mother. Suddenly an immigrant again, having recently moved to the UK with my husband and baby, I find myself leaning on the lessons in motherhood I learned from my mom. I’ve embraced the ragged parts of my reality that have shaped the type of mother I’ve become. One who can summon resilience in the face of isolation and struggle, and patience in the midst of chaos. And like my own mother, one who manages to find light amongst the heaviness of everyday life.  Now those perfect TV and social media moms don’t seem so ideal, bound to the false narratives they’ve crafted for themselves. But I finally feel free.
The Year in Taxidermy

I’ve been trying to scrape something free and nothing’s budged. It’s possible I’ve scraped out all there is to give. What is the thing I was looking to salvage?

What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2018? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. A good way to think about taxidermy is to imagine you’re God. Take the dead thing and resurrect it. Shape it in your own image. I grew up in an evangelical household. I know all about mortification of the flesh, the zombie special-feature of a body rising from the dead, the marvel of the reanimated holy corpse. What I needed to know was how to resuscitate a thing that I’d killed. Taxidermy provided some of those answers. There were processes and procedures. I wanted to perform miracles, scrape out everything wrong with my life. I wanted to gut myself. I knew I could not. Listen, it’s rough to need gentleness when all you’ve ever wanted to wield is a jackhammer. * This is the year I finished writing a book. It was about taxidermy, sure, but it was also about intimacy. Much like those mounted animals, people are forever trying to preserve their memories. Dorothy Allison says, “change, when it comes, cracks everything open,” and as usual, she’s right. Nobody ever wants change, but apparently it’s a necessary part of the human emotional process. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to resuscitate things that didn’t want to live. I know I can be impulsive. I want to bust things apart, rush, feel something spill wildly out of me like a burst dam. Taxidermy says: hey, slow it down. Chill. We’ve got a lifetime, buddy. * I’m talking with a woman on the dating app about taxidermy and she says “don’t be morbid.” I talk with another woman on the dating app about taxidermy and she says, “I have an antler I can show you” and I say “is that a pick-up line.” Here’s another woman on the dating app and we joke about “mounting,” then another woman on the dating app, another another another, here we are in the hotel room, here we are at the bar, here we are in the hotel room, the bar, the hotel. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, but goddamn I’m gonna keep trying this same shit out, anyway. We’re preserving the idea that I’ll remain a solitary, stationary beast. I’m fortifying my meaty interior with felt and padding, wires jammed into my limbs so I’m posed perfectly for photos. Hey, we’ve got all night. We’ve got all night. * A friend brings me a gator skull as a gift. Drunk in the Taco Bell drive thru, I kiss it directly on its bony mouth, leaving behind a smear of lipstick that bloodies the teeth. I wanna feed it a Crunchwrap Supreme. I wanna take it on a moonlit date, that’s how much I love this ode to dead Florida. After my friend drives me home, I set the skull on a shelf. It’s a reminder that I’ve somehow managed to write a book, something just as purposefully constructed as taxidermy. Words stitched together. A solid spine. I’ve thought about taxidermy the way I’ve thought about my own body. A site of violence, a thing I’ve curated, tended, flesh that other people have touched and marveled at, an organism hollowed out, rubbed, constructed with purpose. Taxidermy is queering; it is an othering, and that is also me, a thing queered up and fucked up and positioned with intent. Writing a novel about taxidermy meant that I was thinking about dead things all day long. I researched topics that probably landed me on several government watch lists. Here are notes for the best way to dissolve flesh. Look, a website about different kinds of hunting knives. I’d like to know the best way to dislocate a jaw, thank you very much. How do tendons connect at the joint and what kind of upper body strength would it require to cut a throat? There are so many ways to dismember a body. It’s much harder to put everything back together again. * When I touch my pets, I’m palpating the shapes of their skulls beneath their fur. Feeling for their small, hardworking bones. Admiring their litheness. I think about what it would be like to taxidermy them, if they leave me—not if, I always have to remind myself of this—not if, but when. If you scrape out an animal, you’re removing the meat. The blood. The heart. Everything must go. You’re divesting the body of something essential, the living parts, which get chucked in the garbage. All the best stuff inevitably rots. * I’m not gonna lie, it worries me that I relate so fully to the taxidermied squirrel I bought off eBay for nineteen dollars and ninety-five cents, not including shipping and handling. The squirrel rides a bicycle—Barbie’s pink beach cruiser, specifically. The squirrel is holding a miniature beer and he’s got a face like mine, I think; one that a boy in high school once described as “space ratty.” I love this little monster, hell on two wheels, wearing a tank top and cut-off jean shorts. We’ve got a lot in common. We both look like we’re ready to bite someone. “If I’m writing about taxidermy, I should own some,” is what I told myself, but when I looked at that animal all I could think about were the ways I’ve stalled out my life because I can’t deal with emotional upheaval. Look here, see the dead things I’ve preserved: my failed marriage, my severed relationship with my family, Twitter memes that have been over for months. Friendships I’ve maimed because I don’t know how to say I want something more. Tell me how to resurrect the things I once loved, I think, because I can’t imagine loving anything else ever again. I set my squirrel on a shelf high enough the dogs can’t eat it. I look at that squirrel on the bike and admire it, but I also have a constant compulsion to dissect it. I wanna find the seam where he opens, root around inside the cavity, finally understand what I’ve been missing. A woman texts that she wants to know my unknowable parts, and I tell her that’s the thing about unknowable parts, they’re unknowable, and then I lose that number. It’s better to just be funny, I think. The great thing about a joke is that there are a million ways to tell one, but you’re always looking for the same result: a laugh. A joke is the most taxidermied thing there is. * I watch videos of do-it-yourself taxidermy, go on message boards and read about fleshing machines, buy ancient how-to breakthrough manuals I read floating drunk in the bathtub. Beer drips condensation down the page, licking a sad tear down a butchered deer’s caped face. There are so many different tools you can buy. Scrapers, tanners, acid baths. If you wanna open up a body, you’ve got a lot of options. Taxidermy is a memory. It doesn’t replace the thing it used to be. Part of the appeal of taxidermy is that it serves as a way to keep that one good moment with you, forever. * When someone says “tender,” I flinch. It means openness, a wounding, something that shocks your nerves raw. Other people hear that word and think of the softness of two palms pressing. Tender like an open mouth, waiting for a kiss. It’s not a flaying; it’s infinitely delicate. Gentleness scares me more than anything. It’s so easy to turn something tender into something tenderized. To make the hard thing soft means anyone can smash it to bits. Oh, it has been a year of being the taxidermist, but maybe it has also been the year of being taxidermied. I’ve been trying to scrape something free and nothing’s budged. It’s possible I’ve scraped out all there is to give. What is the thing I was looking to salvage? * Sitting outside my house with that taxidermied squirrel, I listened to the scree-scree of the cicada bombarding the oaks. I touched that squirrel’s whole body. The tail. The head with its liquid black eyes. It looked alive. It looked dead. It looked somewhere in the middle. It looked like it couldn’t decide what it wanted, either. I fully sympathized. In this year of taxidermy, friend, I looked inside and found hollowness, sure, but there was also room for growth. Places that could be filled. I am repurposing the animal. I will do it gently, carefully. I will do it with love.
Skin Worn Thin

Every time someone sees me as either white or black, I wonder, is passing an act of capitulation, or resistance? A rejection of identity, or of identification?

Every time I crossed the courtyard, walked past the well in the corner and slipped out of the baby blue gate nestled into the high brick wall that surrounded my Chadian host-family’s house, I instantly became nasara. It’s a Ngambay word that means both “foreigner” and “white-person” at the same time. A little pack of children would follow me down the red-dirt street, chanting “nah-sa-rah, nah-sa-rah” and laughing.    During my first weeks in Moundou I had protested once—in jest—to Sem, a balding evangelical pastor with a belly and a deep laugh, who was my NGO’s main contact in the town. “You know my Mom is black, right?” I said to him, from the passenger seat of his SUV. He chuckled, and simultaneously looked away from the dirt road as he accelerated his Toyota that sported a Christian fish sign and an American flag sticker on its bumper. “Yes, well,” he paused and pointed to my bare forearm, then looked me in the eyes, my blue eyes. “Just look at you, and then look at us!” He laughed again, then he turned his head back to the road and blared the car’s horn angrily at a motorcycle that was approaching the intersection from our left. He hit the accelerator again, forcing the moto, or clando, as they are called locally, to swerve aside as we blew past in a cloud of dust.   * My friend Frederic worked at the largest employer in Moundou, a textiles company named CotonTchad, where he shoveled coal into furnaces for six hours a day. The company ran a “club,” which consisted of a few cabanas clustered around a tennis court that hadn’t been played on in thirty years, and pool that lived a permanent dry season. It had pizza and free internet. Chadians with cars, and nasaras, went there. A few weeks after I had arrived in Moundou, Frederic took me to Club CotonTchad. The city hadn’t passed into dry season yet, and so the red-earth roads were jagged with ruts made by rainstorms and our bicycles jostled and bumped until we got to “Rond Point de la Femme” traffic circle, then turned onto a paved main street that lead to across the Logone River, and eventually to N’Djamena. As we neared the river, the look and feel of the city dripped away to a dozen cracking, once-cream colored concrete houses set back on lawns bordered by bushes in place of spike-topped front walls. This was the old area that in colonial times had been reserved for the French. There would have been a barricade at the beginning of the road, and Chadians would have been denied entry. Now, the houses belonged to CotonTchad, and where they finally ended, the club sat perched against the banks of the river. The green uniformed guard at Club CotonTchad’s gate did his own double take at me when I dismounted my bicycle and unclasped my helmet. He looked at me curiously, this nasara on a bicycle instead of in a car, but stepped aside and waved me in. I passed with a Parisian-lilted “bonjour,” and he said “bonjour” back with the Chadian r that rolls off the tongue. A few steps in, I realized that Frederic was no longer beside me, and turned around to see that he had been stopped by the same guard who had let me pass unchallenged just moments before. I went back. “It’s okay,” I told him, “Frederic’s just showing me around. We’re going to go in and probably grab a Coca-Cola.”  And so, Frederic and I walked into the heart of Club CotonTchad, where its post-imperial rust was framed by manicured grass—the kind with thick, sandpapery blades that can be coaxed out of a desiccated ground with only mildly exorbitant water use. We sat in plastic chairs at a round plastic table, flecked with our own sweat. It was pushing past thirty Celsius. I ordered the two most expensive Cokes in Moundou. Frederic poured his into a glass, I drank mine from the bottle. The Coke left a saccharine film in my mouth. Then we biked home in the rain, and even in the downpour I felt hot and dirty. On the way back an unknown stranger stopped us on the side of the road in the rain. He yelled something in Ngambay, and Frederic tried to calm him down. He looked at me then, in his stained and torn green shirt, gestured toward my helmet, and spoke to me in French. “A white man in Africa, he’s permitted everything,” he said with anger. “But what if I were to go to Europe, to France—what would happen then?” Biking away, in a country where I was unquestionably privileged and seen as white, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was passing, and that maybe, just maybe, this man was the only other one who knew. In Chad, I couldn't have it both ways, couldn't slip into the well-defined role of being white when it suited me, and then set myself apart from it when it did not. In Chad I was white. * Passing for white is a well anchored, though marginal, phenomenon in American racial history. There was never a uniform definition of who “counted” as black in the United States, alternating between one quarter ancestry (Virginia’s designation of “mulatto” in 1822), and the “one-drop rule” that spread throughout southern states during the Jim Crow era.  Even as late as 1982, Susie Guillory Phipps, who identified as white, but whose great-great-great-great-grandmother was black, brought a lawsuit against the state of Louisiana to overturn the law forcing her birth certificate to declare her to be black. The law—a 1970 update from a previous one whose standard was “a trace of Negro ancestry”—had established 1/32 as the new color line, and state genealogists had determined that Susie Phipps was 3/32 black. She lost her case. “It’s funny about passing,” the 1920s author Nella Larsen writes in one of the earliest novels to engage the phenomenon, “we disapprove of it and at the same time condone it. It excites our contempt and yet we rather admire it. We shy away from it with an odd kind of revulsion, but we protect it.” At the time when she was writing, between 2,500 and 30,000 African Americans with light enough skin and physical features that allowed them to “pass” unquestioned into white society often did.  Adrian Piper, ambiguously pigmented and a conceptual artist, writes in an essay, “Passing for White, Passing for Black,” that “In the African-American community, we do not ‘out’ people who are passing as white in the European American community,” perhaps in recognition of a decision born in some sort of pain.  Internalized racism, some might taunt. Pity, others might respond. The desire for “whiteness” shows up throughout our history as a persistent response to racism, or our notions of beauty, or a desire to belong, to be privy to the intimate moments of the leitkulture through the unacknowledged silence that acknowledges you as just that. And those moments can happen, they can buzz in and out of your life, leaving you flecked with power and its seductiveness one moment, and then a sense of disembodiment in the next. One day you can grab your coffee from the counter of a Parisian café, cringing as the barista asks where you’re from, and then replies—curiously, innocently, unaware of what her words mean in the context of a country that has in its history counted people as fractions—that you don’t look cent pourcent américain, and the next day your friend’s uncle can tell you that he’s actually been to Ohio once for business, to Cincinnati, where he stayed in a motel that was kind of scary, he explains, leaning in and dropping his voice low, because the whole place was—almost to a whisper now—filled with black people.  It can be tauntingly, cloyingly sweet to pass into the club in silence, unchallenged. * The word passing entered my lexicon in the early days of 1999, when I was eight years old. We had had five snow days in a row, which was almost unheard of. Every night we kept putting our pajamas on inside out for luck, and every night it kept raging snow and ice. With the days off, I had read Black Like Me, John Howard Griffin’s account of the way he chemically darkened his skin and then intentionally passed for black while traveling through the deep south in the 1950s. A sprawling, abandoned lot sat across the street from my house, next to a meatpacking plant that made the whole block smell like sausage on Wednesday afternoons. The neighborhood was a little mecca of multiculturalism in the middle of a ruined Midwestern steel town; that didn't mean it was tranquil. In a city split by its river between a predominantly white west side and a black east side, the neighborhood, which fell just west of the river, was seeing its own racial divisions revealed and exacerbated by a nascent onslaught of gentrification. Every block-club meeting became a battle royale for the soul of the neighborhood, roiling with the tensions between the (white) “social justice gentrifiers,” the (white) “urban warrior gentrifiers” who had followed them a decade later, and the minority residents who preceded both and were slowly being priced out of the few square miles of city they called home. Yet, the neighborhood had still only rounded the first base of gentrification. Though dotted with half-finished half-million dollar “townhomes,” it still hosted a shabby, peeling Catholic Worker house and community theater in the southern half, a big open-air food market to the east, a gay spa and gay nightclub around the corner from my street, the projects on the northern edge by the lake. Each part of the neighbourhood had its characters. There was Shorty, a sometimes—no, mostly—homeless handyman who once saved an elderly couple from a burning house and collected his Citizen of the Year award in paint-dripped cargo shorts. “Bubby” Hawk, a teenage guy who swore incessantly, had a trick-bike pimped out with neon lights and gold handlebars, and who set off bottle rockets next to the browned-out carcasses of the old cars in his house’s yard. The screech from the bottle rockets upset the retired judge and World War II veteran-turned-pacifist down the street because the sound took him back to Normandy, where he had lain shot in the back. A well-off, white investor, who would eventually develop the vacant lot into fortress-like townhomes, loved peeling down the street in his red, vintage Ferrari and would put up the neighborhood’s sole “Bush/Cheney” sign in front of his house. An evangelical pastor, who lived at the intersection of Bubby’s home and the lot, had painted in slightly off-level stenciled red letters, “The John 3:16 Building” on his large but aging house. The Catholic Workers, with a completely different interpretation of the “Red Letters,” protested the Cleveland Air Show (or more precisely, the military presence at it) every summer with signs, songs, and street theater. And our neighborhood mailman (also a Catholic deacon), hosted a legendary fall potluck party in his backyard that, without fail, degenerated into fairly serious drinking with a light touch of pot after midnight.   That winter, the lot was still empty, and a pickup kept plowing the gravel circle in the middle, which meant that the snowbanks it created kept getting higher and higher, reinforced every time it stormed ice. We tunneled them out and ringed the tunnels with snow-forts. Other kids decided they would knock the forts down, and kick the tunnels in. As they chased me into my house, the words they shouted stuck. “Get whitey!” they yelled. “Yeah, let’s jump this little white boy’s ass.” They had no idea that a few years later, when I became a pre-teen, my mother and I would come close to having the talk. “Look at me,” she would say one day, as if the thought had been squatting at the back of her mind, and she wanted to express it before it got lost. “When you walk out of a store, don’t keep your hands in your pocket. I saw you do that the other day. Things might be different when you’re out with your father, but you don’t want to give anyone any reason or excuse to accuse you of shoplifting.”  “You’re a young black man,” she added.  “Even if your friends end up fine, you’re the one who will end up in trouble.”  But in the winter of 1999, at not quite nine years old, the trouble on my mind was literally on the outside of a glass door, looking in. As the group of boys angrily pelted the house and cars with snow, I held up my middle finger at them, felt my heart beat, stared, and determined to myself that there was extraordinarily little that I had in common with them, or wanted to have in common with them. I knew that outside that door, I was physically powerless. As a product of an educated, leftist social circle, I knew—perversely—that my power, a fundamentally greater power, was structural. It lay in my ability to navigate with confidence and ease the codes, institutions, and expectations of polite, white, society. The choice between power and powerlessness seemed so clear. I wore successive pairs of neon yellow running shoes when I was young; my group of neighborhood friends (three white, one black) told me they were “pretty white.” I got good grades, and to my classmates, that too was “pretty white.” The syntax I used, the way I formed words between my tongue and teeth. Pretty white. My favorite song was “Everlong” by the Foo Fighters, I was building a desktop computer on the weekends, every year I reread practically the entire Tolkien canon. It was all pretty white pretty white pretty white. I wrote about the yellow shoes in my common app essay and got into Amherst College. Because I had checked off the box on the demographic page of the PSAT that moved me from National Merit Semifinalist to National Achievement Scholar, I got to cash my $2,500 check and didn’t have to do work-study. And I felt like an impostor, like no matter what I wore, it would always be a disguise. I had crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge and grown up reading books like Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. I had watched Amistad and newsreels of firehoses pinning protesters against walls while police dogs snapped at their feet and officers bashed their heads in with billy clubs. I had gone to teach-ins about the Children’s March, summer social justice camps about race and class and urban poverty, learned about Ida B. Wells and stepped into sanctuaries that had welcomed Martin Luther King. I knew the lyrics to "Go Down Moses," and had celebrated Juneteenth.  And still, I thought, what right did my clear blue eyes, the ones that got me stopped in public by middle aged women, that brought compliments from security guards and pre-9/11 trips to the cockpit from flight attendants, what right did those eyes have to inhabit someone else’s struggle, someone else’s pain? It was only years later that I would learn about the myriad moments of discrimination my mother had hidden from me while I was growing up. Like the neighbors who had eventually stopped their children from playing with me when I was five. “Not the chocolate ones,” she had overheard the woman say to her daughter, Tabitha. Or how despite an extremely high score on my entrance exam to Saint Ignatius High School, I had been “overlooked” for the honor’s program until my mother had intervened with an admissions officer. The school, she told me just recently, had a history of doing that to minority students. * Across geography and time, human cultures have found common ground in their unease with things that are liminal—things that can’t easily be classed and thus neatly ordered. Mary Douglas writes about this in her 1966 anthropology classic, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, where she dissects cleanliness and uncleanliness, forbidden foods, and things that make us feel uneasy. These are things that straddle definitions, exist between two categories, like animals that cleaveth the hoof but cheweth not the cud. Philip Roth tells us why his main character in The Human Stain, Coleman Silk, decides to forsake his identity and pass for—become?—a white Jew. “All he’d ever wanted since earliest childhood was to be free: not black, not even white—just on his own and free.” But he can’t be just on his own and free, and so he decides that there is at least more freedom to be had by being white. Coleman Silk decides not to be liminal, not to be a walking, living taboo. Is passing an act of capitulation, or resistance? A rejection of identity, or of identification? The challenge and irony put before those who pass as white is that white is an unspoken norm. Successive waves of immigrants have arrived in the United States and acquired whiteness. The Irish needed not apply, but then they became white. Italians, ostracized and Catholic—they too became white.  There is history and heritage in being Scottish or Swedish, Hungarian or Polish, or any other European ethnicity traditionally associated with white skin. White, though—is it anything other than a stand-in for power? A definition for something that needs not be defined, but simply is? Whiteness is never the identified half of a mixed identity. As a girlfriend once observantly pointed out, I have never, ever, reflexively referred to myself as “half-white,” a linguistic construction that is itself active, rather than just is. To paraphrase Larsen, it’s funny about whiteness—in order to claim it, passers have to racialize it, define it, give it some sort of mass and shape. They have to “act white.” But is it even possible to pin down an ontological whiteness? * By April, Chad’s dry season, I had to lean my arm way down over the edge of the well, grasping the frayed ends of the rope with fingertips, in order to lower the leather sack down far enough to touch the surface of the water and slowly slip beneath. Dry season near the equator is a series of sun-forced strabismic glances. Months of cursing the sun and wiping your brow repeatedly, until you could swear that the skin there had been worn thin.   One day just after dry season had passed, after water had finally shot down from the sky with such force that it kicked sand up into the air and shook mangoes from trees, I was walking home from the market with two Chadian friends. We stepped to the side of the road to get out of the way of a motorcycle, whose driver sped by in a cloud of dust, his djelleba puffing out around him; a chimera, fat with wind. Because we had moved, we were close enough to two little girls sitting on the side of the road to hear them speak. I couldn’t understand their Ngambay, but they were giggling. One of my friends burst into a big, open-mouth laugh. “Those girls,” he told me. “One said, ‘Look, there goes the nasara’. And the other one said, ‘No, he’s not a nasara, he just looks like one. He’s really Chadian on the inside.’”
Death in the Delta

When the Gaias were murdered, Mississippi lost one of the finest guitarists in a generation and a well-loved daughter, sister and friend. Decades later, the slayings still haunt the Delta.

It was not like Gene Gaia to be late. On the evening of September 5, 1975, several young men in a rock band called Furthermore traveled to the small Mississippi Delta city of Ruleville to play a high school dance. They met at the Ruleville Youth Center, set their gear up and waited for show time. It was a Friday. The guys were in good spirits. But as the sky darkened and a crowd of teenagers gathered, their guitarist had still not shown up. A twenty-two-year-old with long, brown hair and intense eyes, Gaia was the band’s de facto leader. As a  musician he had wide-ranging interests, something reflected in Furthermore’s unique sound. The group played extended loops of music that would begin, say, with a Chuck Berry number before moving into some Miles Davis and then into some David Bowie, closing with several measures of Stravinsky. Gaia wrote sheet music for the compositions. He had learned to take pieces of music that on the surface seemed to oppose each other, and stitch them together in ways that left no seams showing. He was a devoted guitarist. Musicians who knew his music call him one of the finest guitarists to come out of the Mississippi Delta in a generation, and he almost always arrived first for Furthermore gigs. Mary Gaia, his seventeen-year-old wife, would often be at his side. They had married in spring and lived in an isolated old house about thirty miles west of Ruleville, down a long dirt road, in the middle of acres and acres of farm fields. Late summer rain storms had come to the Delta that week. Some of Gene’s bandmates thought the roads out there might have flooded, or that they might have had car trouble, leaving the couple stranded at home. At some point someone called Gene’s mother in Rosedale, a city along the Mississippi River. Jean Gaia said the last time she had seen her son was two days earlier, on his twenty-second birthday. That night, the other members of Furthermore left Ruleville with Gaia on their minds. He had never missed a gig. “He was a true bandmate,” Chuck Kimes, the band’s bassist, said recently. “‘Something’s bad wrong here’ is what I thought.”  * Gene Gaia grew up in Rosedale, a place connected to the crossroads blues legend Robert Johnson sang about, said to be the last Mississippi city to get dial telephone service, where a train known as The Owl passed through. One childhood friend said, “Gene appeared in Rosedale,” making it sound like he walked out of a clump of cypress trees near the town. The truth is his parents’ marriage fell apart. They had been living in Memphis. Jean Gaia moved back to her hometown with her only child, six-year-old Gene. A divorced mother approaching forty, she likely had nowhere else to go. Why the marriage between Eugene Louis Gaia II and Jean Gaia failed is unknown. Hard luck, though, stayed in Gaia II’s pocket. He was an Italian-American whose parents owned a Beale Street liquor store. His mother died after being shot during an armed robbery at the store in 1968. He had a series of businesses himself, including a nightclub. “Like everything else he owned,” a distant relative said, “it went under, too.” Gene Gaia had toy soldiers at home he did not mind sharing and fit in fine in Rosedale, a small-town, early 1960s scene, where boys played downtown near the Talisman, the local theater, or out along the levee. Mothers called the boys home at dusk for dinner and when Gene began second grade, he had a group of friends. As he got older, though, Gene’s gaze fell more toward the ends of his shoes. Part of this was Gene, reserved by nature, preferring his own company to anyone else’s. It could also have been related to the first bloom of social awareness that comes at the onset of the teenage years. The subtle lines that separate classes are adhered to in the Mississippi Delta. In Rosedale, where roughly two thousand people lived in the early 1960s, those lines were easy to make out. Gene could see his small family was not part of the Delta’s upper crust of lawyers, doctors and real estate men. Nor was he among the prominent farming families whose surnames signaled good lineage. He was an only child with a strange last name from somewhere else who lived with his single mother, a teller at Valley Bank.  They lived in a small home on a shaded stretch in a residential neighborhood of Rosedale. Phillip Taylor, the son of a crop duster, lived nearby. He and Gene were the same age and often gathered as teenagers around a radio, listening to the new sounds of the 1960s. One of their favorite stations was WDIA out of Memphis. “On cool winter nights,” Taylor said, “you could get a strong signal.” The station played rhythm and blues. What took the kids away, though, were the rock-and-roll bands of the British Invasion.  Gene grew his hair down to his eyes, like The Beatles, as long as his Rosedale football coaches would allow. He’d been teaching himself to play guitar since junior high. Before long he could drop a needle on a record he had never heard and within a try or two mimic the song’s guitar part without flaw. “He lived, ate, breathed guitar,” Dasel Moorhead, another childhood friend, said. He joined The Ninth Time at fourteen. He was the youngest member. The group performed popular tunes—some Sam and Dave, some Wilson Pickett—and for Gene, on lead guitar, they came easy. He would whisper to the rhythm guitarist how to finger a certain chord, even though the rhythm guitarist was three years older than him.  The Ninth Time evolved into Fyre, which included a keyboard player from the Delta named Jim “Fish” Michie. Michie, who lives in Nashville today and has shared a stage with Widespread Panic, said the first time he played with Gene the young guitarist did not utter a single word. “I didn’t know if he was painfully shy or just didn’t talk,” Michie said. While Gene was just as reserved on stage, where he stood as motionless as a statue, his playing made him stand out. He was too young to have developed a style but nothing was too fast for him. Fyre played a bunch of Veterans of Foreign Wars halls and high school parties, where the crowds came looking to enjoy themselves and dance. When the shows began, though, said Jimmy King, the group’s vocalist, half of the people would stop dancing. “They would be up front,” he said, “in front of Gene, with their mouths open, watching him play.” If you ask about him today, people use words like “genius” and “savant” with conviction. One man who heard him play described the clarity of notes Gene brought out of guitar strings in a way that felt like grace. *  Some people at the Ruleville show remember that, without Gaia, Furthermore packed up and left without performing. Others believe a friend of the band picked up a guitar and helped the group through an abbreviated set of rock songs. Whatever happened, they were all worried.  David Moore, the group’s drummer, and his brother Wally, who played the saxophone and flute, stopped at their mother’s place, in Cleveland, for a snack on the way home. Not long ago, when asked what time they left their mother’s home, Wally said, “We didn’t pay much attention to time then.” The brothers were twenty-four and twenty, and it was likely after midnight when they left Cleveland heading west on Highway 8. Their thoughts kept circling back to Gaia. They went to Mary’s family’s home in Malvina and knocked on the door. There was no answer. After driving by Gaia’s mother’s home in Rosedale and seeing that his car was not there, they were headed home, but decided to go to Gaia’s home in the fields instead. David drove. Wally remembers sitting in the passenger seat, passing time by fiddling with a spotlight, shining the light down into ditches and up through tree branches. At about 2:45 a.m., when far off Delta places reach a rare sort of vacancy and stillness, the brothers came around the edge of Bogue Phalia. They saw lights in the distance, coming out of the open front door of Gene and Mary’s home. Getting closer, they saw his car, a green Ford Maverick, parked at the house. David stopped the car at the top of the drive.  Furthermore had practiced at the house many times. The brothers knew the property. The place was grown up and faded, the house rickety and old. Sitting in the car, David felt something out of place in a dark spot in the yard. He asked his brother, beside him, to shine the spotlight over. When describing what happened next, Wally said, “This is the part of my life where the terror has never been higher.” *  When Gene graduated from Rosedale High School in 1971, many of the friends he played music with put their instruments down and went to work or college or joined the military. Gene went deeper into music. He was drawn to edgier guitar work, to musicians like Clapton, Hendrix and John McLaughlin, guitarists who did more than play three-chord love songs and smile. He joined a group called Bodock, and enrolled at Delta State University in Cleveland. He did not care about taking a degree. He wanted to learn about music. Jim “Fish” Michie was a Delta State student then. Sometimes, outside of Broom Hall, he bumped into Gene, coming or going to music classes in Zeigel Hall. They would chit-chat. “I could hang in there with him on that stuff up to a point,” Michie said with a laugh. When Gene turned the conversation toward abstract music theories, Michie, a social sciences major, would get lost. Gene still lived with his mother, in Rosedale, in a place beside his grandmother Emma Dawkins. In a sort of garage space between the homes he built a makeshift recording studio, where he practiced and recorded pieces of music he wrote. (A neighbour remembers that Dawkins, in her seventies, asked that he keep it down during General Hospital.) Mike Morrison, the owner of a music equipment store in Cleveland, recalls Gene hearing a Mahavishnu Orchestra record at the shop and explaining what he believed the musicians were meaning to impart with each note. In order to play classical guitar he grew out the fingernails on his right hand. One of the friends Gene felt comfortable sharing his passion for music with was David Moore, who, since graduating from Rosedale High in 1969, had become a respected drummer in Delta music circles. The son of a Rosedale doctor, David, like Gene, existed at the fringes of the area’s conservative social webbing. He worked at a cotton gin but art and music were his passions. Eight miles north of Rosedale, up Highway 1, in Gunnison, he rented an old home with a wrap-around porch where he and Gene spent a lot of time playing music, smoking a little dope and deepening their friendship. In 1974, to make some money, David and Gene played some shows at the Conservation League, a working class club and restaurant on Lake Beulah, an oxbow lake of the Mississippi River. One night at the Conservation League, Gene met a sixteen-year-old girl named Mary Braxton. He was smitten with Mary, dark-haired and outgoing, and a relationship began. The Braxtons lived in Malvina. They were a large, blue-collar family—Mary had four sisters and five brothers. Once Gene and Mary met, “they were always together,” Wally Moore said. They complemented one another. Mary had a sensitive young man with focused sincerity in a place where sensitivity and sincerity were not especially valued, and Gene had an attractive local girl who accepted his humble life and music. There is little doubt they were in love. They married on April 21, 1975.  Shortly after the wedding they began renting the little isolated house outside of Malvina. Besides being a new couple after independence, Gene wanted a place of his own, where he could practice his music without bothering anyone. It was hot, with no telephone, and they let the grass grow knee-high, natural. But the place was cheap and anyone who has shared a home with their first lover knows the bliss those walls held.  The couple lived simply, with Gene focused on music and his classes at Delta State University in Cleveland, and Mary, who had recently quit high school, devoted to him. The majority of their first summer as a married couple was spent at the Rosedale Country Club swimming pool, where a lifeguard would jokingly tell them to stop kissing. Mary seemed to spend that entire summer in a swimming suit. *  Sitting in the car, Wally moved the spotlight into the yard of the Gaias’ house. The light revealed Gene Gaia laying completely naked, dead. Beneath him lay Mary, on her back, “staring straight up into the sky,” Wally said, “like making a snow angel.” She was wearing bikini bottoms and Gene was on top of her, his knees and hands beneath him. Friends would later describe Gene as dying “crouched over Mary, like he was trying to pick her up.” His face was down, hidden. Panic rushed in around Wally. David began turning the car around. He had an Opel Kadett then, with a bad carburetor, and as the car struggled to gain speed on the mud and gravel he thought he glimpsed the figure of a man with long hair ducking into the house.  In Malvina, a nearby community, they stopped at the home of Sybil Tyer, who David sometimes hunted Native American artifacts with. When she answered the door, the brothers told her to call the police, and asked for a gun. They wanted to return to the Gaia home and find who David had seen. Tyer called the Bolivar County Sheriff’s Department and the brothers instead drove to Rosedale, where a carload of deputies met them beneath a red light in front of the courthouse. Then they drove back out into the fields toward the Gaia home. David described what they found when they got there as a “lit-up ghost scene.”  Whoever David thought he had seen in the doorway, if he had seen anyone, was gone. Wally recalls that what met the deputies as they crept across the Gaias’ yard, guns drawn, was the foul smell of death, hanging thick in the air, and a kitten, wandering around, hissing. The bodies were nearby. Gene had been shot in the back, in the right temple and in the mouth. A doctor who performed the autopsy would later say of the bullet holes in Gene’s mouth that “we could identify two, but the destruction was so much there could have been more.” Mary had been shot in the buttocks and multiple times in the throat, beneath her chin. They both died from bullets entering their skulls. A prosecutor later said they were “brutally executed, not murdered.”  Gene’s car was parked in front of the home. The windows were down and bed linens and musical equipment were on the seats. It seemed like the couple had been getting ready to leave. Or had just arrived home. The deputies asked the Moore brothers to accompany them inside the house, where it was clear a struggle had taken place. There was an overturned lamp on a table and the hinges of an interior door had been knocked out of a wall. There were drops of blood in several places and a broken ashtray. When the deputies heard a noise in the back, they pulled a curtain aside cautiously to find a dog, growling at them. There were pieces of dog feces in several spots on the floor and, beside the bed, a fully-loaded .22-caliber rifle. In the front room was a pair of shorts and the bikini top that matched the bottoms Mary was wearing. David had the impression Gene and Mary had been forced to disrobe at gunpoint. In the kitchen, on the stove, two or three eggs had been left boiling in a pot of water. “It had been burning so long,” a deputy later testified, “that the handle had burned off the boiler.” The water was long gone. “The egg shells were just ash,” Wally said. Other signs of an interrupted meal were on a nearby table: Plates covered in mildew and mold, jar of pickles, bread, mayonnaise and tuna fish. Deputies collected their evidence and photographed the scene, and an ambulance took the bodies to the Bolivar County Hospital morgue in Cleveland before sunrise. Some of Mary’s brothers, who lived down the road in Malvina, gathered at the end of the driveway. The Moore brothers eventually drove home in disbelief. A deputy told them before they left that in the coming days, as the investigation began, they should not leave the area. They went home to Gunnison where, around midday or so, David’s girlfriend brought them some food. They ate what they could. * The band that became Furthermore formed a month or so after Gene married. Gene played the guitar, David the drums. They asked Larry Prestage, from Cleveland, to be the vocalist. Prestage called Chuck Kimes to play bass. Kimes, 19 at the time, jumped at the chance to play with Gene, who, he said, “was a heavyweight in the Delta,” as far as musicians go. The guys recruited Wally Moore, David’s younger brother, to play flute and saxophone, which sounded, David said, “like a pterodactyl.” At first, they called themselves Dog Brains (though now, there’s some dispute over whether it was in fact Dog Brain or Dog Branz). Kimes remembers that there was creative tension, the good kind. While Gene indulged his strange interests and Prestage wanted more straight-forward rock, David gave speeches on the band not prostituting itself and needing to practice more. Gene sometimes called his old friend “Hitler” behind his back for the driving intensity of his personality. For weeks, they practiced at Gene’s new place. With only crops around for miles they could turn the amps up with no worries.  [[{"fid":"6704546","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"5":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"5"}}]] Gene, under the influence of musicians like Miles Davis and Frank Zappa, wrote out long compositions, welding wildly different pieces of music together in ways that kept them afloat. If an audience found something to dance to, David said, then good. But that was not the goal. The idea was to play music that inspired them, but Gene knew they also had to play popular music to make money. Eventually they changed the name to Furthermore, a more approachable moniker. There was no lack of gigs. Photos of the band from the time, set against a campfire, show an innocent awkwardness in four of their faces, the kind that comes from going at something you have not learned how to reach. Then there is Gene, thin with long hair and slouching with indifference. He rarely looks directly at the camera and seems attuned to something far away, something only he can see. * From the beginning, investigators with the Bolivar County Sheriff’s Department had trouble uncovering a motive for the Gaia murders.  No gun was found near the bodies, so presumably murder-suicide was out. Nothing appeared to be missing from the house, so robbery was out, too. Because a plastic bag containing about a pound of marijuana was found in a closet, investigators thought the murders might have been the result of a botched drug deal. Authorities summoned Kimes for an interview. After showing the bassist gruesome photographs of the bodies, they implied that drugs must have been involved. Kimes heard from Prestage that Gene grew a little marijuana near the house but only for personal use. Also, if it was a drug deal, why were the Gaias nude? And why was the marijuana left behind?  Establishing when the murders occurred was just as challenging as identifying a motive. The bodies were taken from the scene at 5:30 on Saturday morning, and put in refrigeration at the morgue about twenty-five minutes away, approximately three hours after being found. The bodies were badly deteriorated and bloated. One newspaper reported that investigators guessed they had laid outside since at least Thursday. It’s likely the rain that week accelerated the decomposition process, distorting the timeframe. They hoped autopsies would clear up a time of death.  Meanwhile, word of the murders made it through the community. By Saturday night something chilling was circulating: Whoever committed the Gaia murders was still at large. There were conflicting stories about the last time the Gaias had been seen alive. Friends of the couple told the Delta Democrat-Times, a local newspaper, that Gene and Mary had last been seen late Thursday afternoon. The newspaper also reported that the couple’s parents had last seen them Tuesday, something contradicted by Jean Gaia at the eventual trial for the murders, where she would say she’d seen them Wednesday. The autopsies were performed two days after the bodies were discovered. Instead of clearing up the confusion around the time of death, the findings brought out more contradiction. The pathologist believed the murders occurred 48 to 72 hours prior to the bodies being placed in the morgue. That meant Gene and Mary were shot sometime between Wednesday morning and Thursday morning. Either the pathologist was wrong or the people claiming to have seen the couple Thursday afternoon had actually seen someone else. Or they were lying.  A local newspaper reporter named Pam Bullard did not know Gene and Mary but several days after their bodies were found she wrote a piece for The Bolivar Commercial about seeing them at the pool. “Mary would drift to a group of swimmers younger than herself to practice diving, race or play water games,” Bullard wrote. “Gene, almost motionless, would rest against the side of the pool, either watching her or appearing to meditate on something far removed from his surroundings… Then they would leave, arm in arm, taking with them all those things new love is suppose [sic] to be. “In those moments,” the piece ended, “it always seemed that the real world was far removed from their existence.” One person  interviewed for this story said Mary died pregnant. *  Furthermore played high school dances and Delta bars that summer. In August, the band played a fraternity party at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. The Sunday before he died, Gene’s mother gave him a watch for his upcoming twenty-second birthday. On Monday, Mary and Gene had a check cashed at a Rosedale service station. They went to Gunnison on Tuesday so Gene could discuss Furthermore’s music with the Moore brothers. They spent Tuesday night at Jean Gaia’s home, where they often stayed as the summer wore on, because when August comes to the Mississippi Delta and blackbirds flock to the fields to eat rice, farmers respond by carrying rifles and shotguns into the fields, shooting relentlessly to scare them away. Sometimes they have airplanes fly back and forth to make them scatter. The rising southern heat and amount of bugs made staying at the little old house in the fields hard. On Wednesday morning—September 3, 1975—before she left for work, Jean Gaia looked in on her son and daughter-in-law. They were both still sleeping. They eventually went to the swimming pool and stayed until late afternoon, when they left in their swimming suits. They went back to Jean Gaia’s home around 4:30 p.m., where they picked up the cake Mary had made for his birthday, which they were going to share with Mary’s siblings.  Then, on Friday, Gene never showed up for Furthermore’s gig in Ruleville.  * Investigators focused on the evidence collected at the Gaia murder scene. A deputy found three empty bullet cartridges on the floor of the home’s front room. The sheriff, combing through the high grass outside, found, a couple of feet from the bodies, five empty cartridges and, a third of a mile from the house, beside a gravel road, several empty cartridges. The cartridges found near the bodies were Federal brand .22-caliber, long rifle hollow point bullets, and the sheriff and his investigators gathered at the Rosedale courthouse on Sunday to inspect them all with a magnifying glass. Deputy Sheriff James Harper said the markings on the cartridges appeared to match. According to the Delta Democrat-Times, one of the few local buyers of Federal brand bullets was Robbins & Long, a local farming company based in Rosedale that also owned the house Gene and Mary had been renting. The company gave the bullets, as well as rifles, to its workers to deal with blackbirds. C.D. Long, one of the owners, handed police the key to a work truck used by Joe Travis, an employee who worked the fields around the Gaia home. The sheriff knew Travis, a thirty-year-old Rosedale native, not because he was a criminal, but because the sheriff knew just about every longtime Bolivar County family. Travis and his wife lived in Cleveland, twenty miles east of Rosedale. He had been with Robbins & Long about three years. On Monday, investigators found his work truck, a green and white ’73 Ford Ranger, parked outside of his South Third Avenue home in Cleveland. In the cab they found boxes of Federal-brand bullets and two .22-caliber rifles—one on the seat in plain view and one behind the seat. The one on the seat belonged to Travis’s father. The one behind the seat, a Remington Nylon 66, belonged to Robbins & Long and was wrapped in a blue jean jacket. Investigators took both. They sent the guns, along with the spent cartridges found at the Gaia home, to the Mississippi Crime Lab, where analysts would work to determine if the cartridges had been fired from either of the guns. Investigators also spoke with Travis. Newspapers reported that he maintained his innocence. He said he worked into the evening on the previous Wednesday, and arrived home around 7:15 p.m. On Thursday, he said, he ate dinner at his father’s home and on Friday went square dancing in Grenada.  A Robbins & Long employee would testify that he and another man had worked with Travis on Wednesday. Sometime in the afternoon, Travis left them in the fields while he went into town. He returned before they left work with some whiskey, offered them a drink, then drove them home between 5 and 5:30 p.m. The employee said that as Travis dropped them off, he mentioned that he was going to go shut off the water pumps in the rice field near Malvina. Authorities arrested Travis and charged him with the murders of Gene and Mary Gaia. He was held without bond. When the next Bolivar County grand jury met, in October, it would hear the evidence against Travis. * Gene and Mary were buried side by side in Beulah, south of Rosedale, after Joe Travis’s arrest. A crowd attended the funeral, including Mary’s family, Gene’s musician friends and the Bolivar County sheriff. As people gathered around the grave, one of Mary’s relatives pointed at Larry Prestage, the Furthermore vocalist, and accused him of knowing more about the murders than he was letting on. Morrison, who supplied Furthermore with PA equipment from his music store, described the graveside scene as “spooky.” The accusation might have been connected to unfounded rumors about an affair between Prestage and Mary. Yet something deeper was at play, too. Something simmering just beneath the area’s social surface. A distrust between the old working class and new hippie scene had emerged in the Delta, like in most places. “You had to stay away from them to avoid getting into anything,” Jimmy King, a vocalist in one of Gene’s early bands, said. After the Gaia murders, the distrust became more pointed.  There was a feeling among Gene’s friends that he had been targeted because of his lifestyle. He was an outsider and sight to see in the conservative Delta. His hair touched his shoulders and he was spotted at Morrison’s music store in Cleveland wearing cowboy boots, gym shorts and no shirt. There was talk that whoever killed him and Mary had done so for something like sport. “It seemed like a hate-killing because so many shots were fired,” Jimmy King said. “I immediately thought a redneck did it, that a redneck got drunk and decided he was going to kill a hippie.” Kimes, the bassist in Furthermore, felt jealousy may have been a motivating factor. Maybe someone from the Conservation League, he said, had not liked a hippie like Gene getting into a relationship with Mary. Kimes wondered if someone decided to teach a lesson. Joe Travis was a family man who attended a local Baptist church. His supporters felt he could not have been involved with what happened at the Gaia home and in October, the grand jury agreed—it declined to indict Travis for the murders. The evidence against him—the rifles in his work truck, the brand of bullets, the fact that he worked the fields near Malvina—was circumstantial. Also, there were no witnesses. Travis was free to go—for the time being. A different grand jury would indict him one year later and he would stand trial. But no one knew that then, and with no suspect in custody, fear spread, especially among friends of Gene and Mary. They saw the workings of a conspiracy.  Morrison said he went to bed with a double-barrel shotgun after the deaths. “We didn’t know who had killed Gene,” he said. Or why. *  Through fall, winter and spring people speculated about what happened at the Gaia home. The theories were fueled by the crime scene’s details, which seemed to grow more lurid in memory as time went by.  There was talk that when authorities arrived at the scene that night they discovered a dead puppy in Gene’s car. A newspaper reported that the puppy was named “Sally” and that Mary took it with her everywhere. The rumor was that the dog, trapped in the car, had died of heat exhaustion, or perhaps starvation. In fact, when investigators arrived at the scene, the windows of Gene’s Maverick were down. Some people said the cake Mary baked for Gene’s birthday was found in the car, too, with melted icing.  One of the theories that went around involved the deaths of two young men twelve years earlier, during the summer of 1963. The men were hunting at Lake Bols near Malvina. They were shot and no arrest was ever made. The case bewildered some locals—it does to this day—and after the Gaia murders some wondered if something sinister moved in the woods near Malvina. L.B. Williams, the sheriff of Bolivar County, dismissed any connection. No arrest had been made in the Lake Bols deaths, he said, because investigators deemed it a murder-suicide. Another theory involved Gene Gaia’s sexuality playing a role in what happened. In a letter David Moore wrote around Halloween 1975, he mentions being under the impression that the autopsy suggested Gene, around the time of death, had been penetrated anally. In the same letter, David mentions that the sheriff told him an expert claimed there was no reason to think that happened. Either way, investigators were asking people if Gene was homosexual. He did not appear to be, but the questions led to whispers, which revolved around Gene’s relationship with a Rosedale man with long hair named Harmon Braxton. An uncle of Mary’s, Braxton, according to local gossips, was gay. When Gene was younger, Braxton had been something of a father figure to him. After the murders, an investigator with the Mississippi Highway Safety Patrol asked Jean Gaia about her son’s relationship with Braxton. She said that when Gene was 13 or 14 he was friends with Braxton, who would have been in his early thirties. She thought that Braxton was “queer,” she said, and told her son to quit spending time with him, and he did. (At trial, Jean Gaia denied telling this story.) David Moore said Gene never talked about his relationship with Braxton, but some people wondered if Braxton committed the Gaia murders out of frustrated jealousies. He died in 2006, at the age of seventy-one, on the banks of the Mississippi River. He does not appear to have ever been a formal suspect.  There was also talk about investigators needing to take a closer look at the Moore brothers. This theory began early—someone called their mother, in Cleveland, the morning the bodies were found, falsely claiming that they’d been arrested as suspects. The brothers chose not to attend their friend’s funeral.  David said recently he avoided the services because he was hearing rumors—about his possible involvement, about drugs being involved—and he felt it best to stay away. Investigators asked Wally Moore to take a lie detector test. He agreed, but when David, who Wally says is the more emotional of the two, learned of the request, he talked him out of it, saying it was ridiculous and insulting. There was also the matter of a strange drawing Wally made several months before the murders. Around the time Gene started dating Mary, he moved in with the Moore brothers in Gunnison. One night Wally was in his bedroom, trying to read. Mary was over, and loud music was coming out of Gene’s room. Wally, nineteen or twenty, grew agitated. He drew a picture, a sort of cartoon portrait of a face in distress, with a screw passing through its skull and a pan of eggs on top of its head—this was meant to show Wally’s frustration. Behind the head were two stick figures having sex, surrounded by stray words of a sexual nature: “Slurp.” “Hummmmm x 1032 minutes.” “Fukk.” “Suk my nose.” There were also several measures of music written out and, in a corner, an upside down cat. Wally slid the drawing under Gene’s door and forgot about the whole episode. “I never in a million years,” he said recently, “believed that I would still be talking about it forty-three years later.” For some reason, Mary kept the drawing—investigators discovered it in her purse after the murders—and when Joe Travis stood trial, his defense attorney used it to suggest to jurors that Wally might have been involved with Mary and, by extension, in the double homicide.  * In late 1975, after the first grand jury declined to indict Joe Travis, a newspaper reporter asked L.B. Williams, the sheriff, what his office planned to do about the unsolved Gaia case. “We will be looking at everything that moves. Going over everything again,” he said. “As long as we tote this badge we will never quit looking. Somebody did it and it’s our job to find out who.”  In October 1976, a second grand jury convened in the Rosedale courthouse. This time, the jury indicted Travis, twice—once for the murder of Gene Gaia, once for the murder of Mary Gaia. M. Lee Graves, the young district attorney, chose to try Travis on Gene’s murder first. For his defense, Travis hired Charles L. Sullivan, a 52-year-old white-haired Clarksdale attorney and powerful member of the Delta’s complex, unseen power structure. Sullivan had been Mississippi’s lieutenant governor five years earlier. There was talk that Travis’s friends and family pooled resources to pay Sullivan’s fees. The trial took place in April 1977. The jury was sequestered at the Holiday Inn in nearby Cleveland. Spectators piled into the Rosedale courthouse as testimony began. Wally Moore was the first to take the witness stand. Graves had to ask him to speak up several times so the jury could hear him. While the prosecution used Wally more or less to establish the discovery of the bodies, the defense had other purposes. From the moment Sullivan began his cross-examination it was clear he intended to suggest that the Moore brothers should be suspects. “Mr. Moore,” Sullivan began, “did any of the group indulge in the use of drugs or narcotics to any extent?” Wally said they drank occasionally and smoked cigarettes. After Sullivan asked Wally if he had been sleeping with Mary and Wally said he had not, Sullivan handed Wally a copy of the drawing found in Mary’s purse. “Can you tell me what this is?” he said. “Yes, I can,” Wally replied. “I drew it.” Sullivan wanted jurors to see how closely the drawing’s details—the sexual nature of the bodies, the eggs, the cat—mirrored the crime scene. He also felt like jurors might take the drawing as evidence that Wally and Mary were romantically involved. Throughout the trial, the defense suggested alternative theories and intriguing what-ifs, and pointed out that the drops of blood found in the Gaia did not match Travis’s blood type. Neither did pubic hairs taken from the home. [[{"fid":"6704551","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"6":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"6"}}]] The prosecution, meanwhile, leaned on the findings of a criminalist from the state crime lab, who testified that the .22-caliber rifle taken from Travis’s work truck fired the cartridges found in and outside of the Gaia home. However, the criminalist could not say with certainty that the bullet fragments removed from the bodies were fired from the gun—something Travis’s team repeatedly pointed out. After the doctor who performed the autopsies testified that Gene and Mary died 48-72 hours prior to the bodies arriving at the morgue, the defense produced two witnesses who claimed to have seen the couple Thursday evening. One defense witness testified to having seen Travis and his wife square dancing in Linn on Thursday night and in Grenada on Friday night. Another witness said she didn’t think Travis’s wife was with him in Linn.  During closing arguments, Frank Wynne, a prosecutor, held the Remington rifle above his head. “This witness will not lie,” he said of the gun. “It’ll tell you the truth every time.” Sullivan responded by reinforcing the idea that authorities had arrested the wrong man. “Some sick person committed the murders of these people,” he said. “Joe Travis is not that kind of person.” Jurors got the case at 4:25 p.m. on Friday. They reached a decision two hours later. After the clerk read the verdict—“Not guilty”—a shriek came from one side of the courtroom, and some people began crying. Travis showed no emotion and left with his arm around his wife, who was pregnant. Jean Gaia left the courthouse. She died seven years later, at the age of sixty-two, and was buried in Beulah, not far from Gene and Mary. Phillip Taylor, one of Gene’s childhood friends, remembers speaking with her a year or so after the murders. “She had pretty much…” he said, his voice trailing off. “It was her only child.” * There was a Rosedale police officer named Grady Jenkins hanging around downtown at the time of the trial. When not playing dominoes at the courthouse, he was looking for conversation. He had the gift of gab and wide-ranging friendships and his son, Milton Jenkins, said he had a way of “absorbing information.” Before Grady Jenkins died in 1981, he told someone that he knew what transpired in the jury room during the Joe Travis trial in 1977.  According to someone who heard the story, Jenkins claimed that when deliberations began, only one of the jurors was in favor of acquittal. This person attended church with Joe Travis and said even if Travis admitted to the murders she wouldn’t believe he did it. Hearing this, another juror decided to acquit, and the jury sat deadlocked, ten to two. The foreman decided that no matter the outcome, prosecutors still had to try Travis on Mary’s murder indictment. Because of that second indictment, Jenkins said, the jury agreed to a not-guilty verdict. What the jury could not have known is that following the acquittal, Sullivan asked the judge to dismiss the indictment against Travis for Mary Gaia’s murder. Sullivan said since the two murders occurred at the same time, and the evidence in both cases was identical, to prosecute Travis for Mary’s murder amounted to double jeopardy. The judge agreed and dismissed the indictment.  After hearing Jenkins’s story, I tried to find out if it was true. One jury member I could identify, James Aycox, died in 2012. I never found out the identity of the juror who came around. The one who allegedly held out for an acquittal, though, I found living in the Arkansas Ozarks.  Her name is Anne Brister. She is in her eighties now. When I reached her on the telephone and explained the reason for my call, she politely asked that I discuss the matter with her husband, and handed him the phone.  John Brister, in a kind but firm voice, asked if I had attended the trial. I told him I had not. He said he sat through nearly all of it. He said he had known Joe Travis since he was a baby and he could not have been involved. “In this country,” he said, “you’re innocent until proven guilty. And they never had any proof.” When I told him Grady Jenkins’s story—that ten jurors had wanted a conviction while his wife wanted an acquittal—he responded, “Well, that pretty much was the case.”  The person likely involved in the murders, he said, drew crazy pictures and left the country after the trial. I asked Brister if he was referring to Wally Moore, who moved to Japan in the 1980s. Brister said he was not calling any names. I asked if his family had attended the same church as Travis. He said they had. Later, he said, “Poor old Joe.” *  A sort of black hole has spread around the corners of the Gaia murders in Bolivar County. While part of this is the passage of time, part of it is harder to explain. Like the sheriff’s department claiming not to have any files whatsoever relating to the investigation, which lasted nearly two years and involved six or seven local investigators, as well as state and federal officials. Some people say L.B. Williams took investigative files home with him after his retirement. Maybe the Gaia files were among them. Or perhaps they were lost when a tornado came through Bolivar County more than a decade ago, destroying several buildings, including a correctional facility that housed old files. Most everyone involved in the investigation and trial has died. The judge in 1978. Charles L. Sullivan the following year in a plane crash. The sheriff in 1993. The lead investigator in 2005. The pathologist who performed the autopsies died in 2016. The only person left is M. Lee Graves, the district attorney who prosecuted Joe Travis. A retired Delta attorney said, “He likely has a very sore spot about the outcome of that trial.” There are people who feel Graves, at best, was apathetic about the murder of a poor, hippie musician. But when the first grand jury declined to indict Joe Travis, Graves could have walked away. Instead, one year later, he presented evidence to a different grand jury and got indictments. Then, after that jury found Travis not guilty of Gene’s murder and the judge tossed the indictment for Mary’s murder, Graves appealed to the state Supreme Court. Joe Travis’s team filed a motion to dismiss the appeal, which a judge approved, because so much time had passed. That same day, Graves filed a motion to withdraw the appeal himself, because he’d missed a deadline for filing additional paperwork.  One day I called Rickey Davis, the former Robbins & Long employee who worked that Wednesday with Joe Travis. “I couldn’t tell you whether he did it or not,” Davis said. “I just worked with him.” He said he passed by Gene and Mary’s home in those fields multiple times that week and never noticed anything. He says now that he always thought no one lived there, because the grass grew so high. Robert Johnston, one of the attorneys who worked on Travis’s defense team, is also still practicing law in the Delta. He declined to comment, saying he would need Travis’s permission to do so. “I do not know where he might be,” he said, “and or even if he is still alive.” I am told Travis might, in fact, still be alive.  He would be in his seventies now. I never did find a phone number that worked for him. Some people said he was in the Delta. Others said he was in south Mississippi. I found addresses for him in both locations, sent letters and never heard back. *  Each surviving member of Furthermore was open to talking at length about their memories of Gaia and what happened, except for Prestage, who, I was told, was busy helping a family member through a hard time. That said, the band was a May-to-September affair and, like any affair, it haunts the memories of those involved to different degrees. Larry Prestage lives in south Florida, and Chuck Kimes lives in St. Marys, Georgia. Both of them are still involved in music. Wally Moore, after two decades in Japan, lives in Oregon. Sometimes he carries a flute into his garage and plays for his own satisfaction. “I have no dreams,” he said, “about playing in public again.” The only band member still living in the Delta is David Moore, a widower. The tallest magnolia tree in Rosedale used to grow nearby, but it’s been cut down. He still performs music on peculiar, percussion-like instruments he makes himself and keeps in his music room a Marshall amp that once belonged to Gene Gaia. Once, when I visited David in Rosedale, we went into the fields outside of Malvina. We drove along a wet gravel road until David felt we were close to where Mary and Gene lived—the house burned years ago and all traces of it have vanished—and then we parked and got out. David mentioned he had not come to the area much.  I wondered if we might conjure up some ghosts out there, but on that cool and overcast January day, with the fields around us bare, everything seemed calm, vacant and still. It was all gone. The only sound other than our voices was a gusty wind and as we walked away, getting ready to leave, it seemed to grow stronger.
Making Peace with New Age

After years of being one of those people who used the term as a derogatory catch-all, I realized that music that falls under the label can, and often does, help me in unexpected ways.

It’s about a five-minute walk downhill from the Bolton Valley Resort to the Lotus Mountain Retreat. My wife and I found a place on the mountain outside of Burlington during the off-season, so the little ski town feels dead, maybe a little post-apocalyptic. I hardly see any other humans walking around, and the only sounds I hear are running water and some rustling of leaves in the distance. I’m far from the city and a little afraid of all the serenity. A crow stares down at me and squawks. When I make it to my final destination, where I’m booked to get a massage, I feel like I’ve arrived at a safe space, that nothing can hurt me now that I’m standing in the shadow of the yoga retreat’s geodesic dome. Inside, my masseuse explains the technique she’ll be using. She looks about twenty-five, smells of patchouli, and is wearing the type of lacey dress you’d expect from somebody who gives massages in a yoga and meditation retreat in Vermont. She leads me to a small room where I take off everything save for my underwear—I’ve never quite figured out if I’m supposed to take off my underwear during massages, and probably wouldn’t even if I was. She tells me to relax and mentions something about my chakras before turning on some music that I can only describe as somebody with a synthesizer recreating whale sounds and then laying those overtop a gentle repetitive beat—a tiny pumping human heart amplified to sync up with ten-thousand-pound mating calls from the depths of the sea. I get massages fairly often these days; it’s something I’ve made room for in my budget because it helps me deal with my anxiety, a suggestion from my shrink. I’ve taken a number of steps in the past few years to decrease how incredibly anxious I always feel, and the one thing I’ve come away with—from my bi-weekly sessions in various, high-end spas that I get a discount on through Groupon, to places that I’m pretty sure are filming me and uploading the videos to the dark web—is that they all play really bad music. The type of music that, if hard pressed, I’d reluctantly describe as “new age”—nature sounds looped and given a slow backing track; drawn out pulsing synths; white people layering chants from a native people to which they have no connection or religion they don’t practice to achieve some sort of deep, spiritual feeling in the listener; nonsensical lyrics with some mystical framing or, even worse, some self-help babble set to music. The problem with that description, though, is that I’m perpetuating a trend that has gone on far too long. While there are genres of music that get treated unfairly (classical music as the soundtrack either for snobs or deterring “anti-social behavior,” the infamous “anything but rap and country” proclamation), none have been as misunderstood and despised as what we think of as “new age.” * “What is ‘new age’ music?” asked John Schaefer in the December 1985 issue of Spin. “Is it music that’s made for meditation, stress reduction, or massage? Or is it whatever California’s post-hippie generation or the yuppie crowd happens to be listening to at this moment?” More than thirty years later, we’re scarcely closer to an accurate working definition. In a 2016 A.V. Club article, Eli Zeger wrote that, “Initially, the term ‘new age’ characterized soloists who devoted their instrumentations to the grace of Mother Nature, whose track lists and discographies swam with references to solstices, rainfall, and other outdoorsy phenomena.” The latter was closer to my early experiences with new age—at least in terms of how I was exposed to it. As a child of the late 1980s and ’90s, the very mention of the term conjured up sitting with an “alternative healer” named Marcus my parents sent me to when traditional psychotherapy didn’t fix my A.D.H.D., anxiety, and bouts of depression. The first time we met, Marcus and I sat staring at each other. He was in a robe, had a beard, a donut cut atop his head that tied back into a ponytail, and wore two necklaces, one a Hebrew chai and the other a beaded, vaguely Native American-looking piece. That inaugural staring session with Marcus did not yield a second one, but he did suggest to my mother that if we ever see the commercial for the Pure Moods CD, that we dial the 800 number and order it. He said it was very relaxing. The Pure Moods album is mystifying—a collection of largely instrumental tracks with not much of anything in common otherwise. It is also the likely source of both our current understanding and misunderstanding of what new age music is and is not. Released in 1994, the commercial snuck onto MTV between images of Blind Melon’s Bee Girl and Coolio’s “Fantastic Voyage”: a woman dancing with a unicorn to the sound of a chant by native Amis people of Taiwan layered over an unmistakable sample of John Bonham’s drumming from the Led Zeppelin song “When the Levee Breaks.” The song, “Return to Innocence,” by the Romanian-German producer Michael Cretu’s project known as Enigma, gives way to a narrator prompting you to “imagine a world where time drifts slowly.” Two songs after things kick off with Enigma, you’re listening to Jan Hammer’s “Crockett’s Theme” from Miami Vice. Later, you’ll transition from Enya to “Tubular Bells Part 1”—because nothing says relax and chill like the theme from The Exorcist—before eventually moving onto Angelo Badalamenti’s theme from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, tracks from Ennio Morricone, The Orb, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Kenny G, and, most importantly, Brian Eno, whose early ambient works are often cited as the beginning of new age music, although Eno himself has worked to distance himself from the label on more than a few occasions. [[{"fid":"6704556","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original"},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"media_original"}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]] Eno’s not alone there. Jon Pareles, in a November 1987 New York Times article, wrote that new age is mostly “timid and constricted,” and that it “promises an exotic sanctuary, but it's a sanctuary furnished like a playpen.” A few months earlier, Pareles would write about Eno’s contemporary, the composer Harold Budd, and his war with anybody who would associate his own “consonant, slow-moving and atmospheric” music with new age. Budd told Pareles, “I reach for my revolver” whenever he heard the term, and that “I’m fighting tooth and nail against people throwing me into that bag.” Dedicated fandoms with often-practical appreciations of the music notwithstanding, though, the disrespect continues. In a 2015 BuzzFeed profile of the artist Enya, Anne Helen Petersen pointed out that the Grammy Award winner, who routinely adds to her more than 80 million records sold, “has been derogatorily described as Muzak or New Age.” In his latest book, How to Change Your Mind, Michael Pollan goes on guided psychedelic experiences, usually noting the music is “New Age drivel.” Eli Zeger, in his above-mentioned 2016 article, wrote, referencing Enya’s “Orinoco Flow,” “There’s nothing wrong with seeking peace and calm—it’s a beautiful thing, in fact. What’s irritating is how new age has preached the same message—‘sail away, sail away, sail away’—that many of its artists have become seemingly desensitized to its significance.” None of that stopped the music’s early ’90s “mainstream” push. Pure Moods is the culmination of the idea the article mentions about how participants in that year’s International New Age Music Conference believed that the “catchall” title could gain more fans “via the ethnic sounds and rhythms of world music.” Pure Moods was also the illogical conclusion of that idea: future releases in the series would include everything from the X-Files theme to “Albatross” by a pre-Stevie Nicks Fleetwood Mac and Giorgio Moroder’s theme from Midnight Express. A way to market “the perfect soundtrack for your way of life,” as the voice in the commercial put it, the mish mosh compilation was continuing a trend that had been building throughout the 1970s and 1980s: music as therapy for the masses. Few were as successful at this as Steven Halpern, who, as a 1995 Billboard article explains, focused on selling the records on his Inner Peace record label to health food stores and at yoga conferences. According to Halpern, his targeted sales have helped push millions of his albums into the hands of consumers. “My message is that we can harmonize our body, mind and spirit more,” Halpern has said. “By minimizing effectively, by using healing music and by bringing healing sounds into our life; by minimizing some of the distracting and noisy and disease-forming sounds and bringing more life-affirming sounds into our world, into our work and into our life.” “I think the oddest tape will always be Steven Halpern's Music For Meetings: The Sounds Of Success, which seems to not have been actually commercially released to the public, but nevertheless exists,” says Douglas Mcgowan, founder of Yoga Records and A&R for the reissue label Numero Group and expert on the genre. “It's hard to imagine a more absurd and mundane thing than that tape.” Mcgowan is a large reason music tagged as “new age” has been getting a second look in recent years, built up by blogs like the now seemingly defunct Crystal Vibrations and compilations like Light in the Attic’s I Am the Center (for which Mcgowan wrote the liner notes). Today, however, trying to figure out what new age is as a genre isn’t as interesting as trying to figure out what you can put under the despised label. Would one consider Enya deserving of the tag? Or what about some of the work of Oneohtrix Point Never? Laraaji, who Pitchfork dubbed a “new-age icon” certainly fits the bill, but Spotify suggests his listeners also like Kraut rock groups like Cluster and Popol Vuh, along with minimalist composers like Terry Riley and William Basinski. Are they new age music? Is anything? “‘New age’ is a cluster of memes,” explains Mcgowan. “The sound parts—of intention towards inner and outer peace, the imagery and aesthetics—are fit ideas that will not go away and will only grow. The worthless parts—of chakras and crystal power and every other part that is clearly bullshit—only persist by riding along with the aesthetic, and because there are so many gullible people with money.” The thing is, all these years later, after being one of those people who also used to use the term “new age” as a catch-all for so much, I realize that music that falls under the label can, and often does, help me. * Inner and outer peace is a goal I’ve been striving for basically my entire life, and at some point, I found that simply changing when and what I listen to could be a big help. For years, my own morning routine was pretty much the same: wake up, go to the gym, and listen to the fastest, loudest music I could stream to get me ready for the day. Charge into it, I’d say. From black metal to ’80s hardcore bands like Negative Approach and Minor Threat to hip hop, guitars and drums, aggressive vocals and abrasive production all made up a big part of my morning. What I found was, yes, I’d start my working day intense and with an edge, but I’m a writer and editor, not an athlete. The more I pumped myself up, the quicker I deflated, and the more anxious and agitated I’d become throughout the day. Of course, it also didn’t help that I consumed more coffee than I probably should, but the combination made me feel a little more aggro than I like; I found myself prone to panic attacks on a constant basis. By the end of the day I had nothing to give. Then, one morning, I hit the wrong button, clicked random on my “writing” playlist (i.e. songs light on vocals and distortion), and up came Celestial Soul Portrait by the composer Iasos (released by Numero Group). I let it play out, running with it, breathing with it. What I found, and continue to find as I start my days listening to albums like the Mcgowan-produced Hearing Music by the artist Joanna Brouk, or even Eno’s ambient records, is that I’m truly more at peace, then and throughout the day, than when I begin with something fast, loud and angry. When I go to do my morning meditation after working out, my mind is calmer, things don’t race around in my head as much—a feat for somebody who has lived with A.D.H.D. their entire life. When Ezra Feinberg’s lush debut solo album Pentimento and Others was released earlier this year, the founder of the band Citay didn’t shy away from using the “new age” tag to describe his work. Like an ethereal, ambient John Fahey, there is a peacefulness to each song that I find helpful when, say, I want to go for a short hike to clear my mind. Yet Feinberg’s expertise goes beyond his musicianship: a practicing psychologist, he has a unique vantage point to understand the impact music can have on our lives and emotions. “Music is useful to your mind,” he says—it’s exciting to be able to turn your angst or sadness or fear into something functional when we listen to it. “Angry music is useful to your angry mind,” he says, “and sad music is useful to your sad mind… [But] the fact that we have something outside of us that we can identify with and that feels beautiful or that feels accurate in some way, in terms of how we feel, makes it so that we need it. You need it to elaborate where you're at.” I first came around to Feinberg’s music a little over a decade ago, in the middle of the Bush II administration. I wasn’t in a good place: In my early twenties and burnt out on everything, broke and with no health insurance to help me pay for treatment, not getting anywhere in my career or life, and just feeling flattened by the world. Maybe it was fate, but in 2005, I read an article in Arthur magazine by Michael Brownstein on “meditation as a subversive activity,” entitled, “Killing the Madman.” Co-mingling with my low feelings of self-worth and place in the world was the very state of things: endless wars, human suffering, the surveillance state, and the destruction of our planet. Brownstein’s piece was a life-changer. “The first revolutionary act—or fact—about meditation,” he writes, “is that it puts you in touch with what you’re feeling and thinking at this very moment. It puts you in touch with presence.” That’s when you realize that it’s not the president or a corporation that is in charge of your emotions—those belong to you. After that, I began practicing meditation. I’ve never settled on one form of practice that consistently suits me, so I dabble. After more than a decade, it’s helped bring me to a better understanding of other steps I should be taking because I really, truly want to feel good. I drink less, exercise more, and try to sit down with myself twice a day. Things were moving along, I was going in a good direction, and then 2016 happened. Then, just like every other rational person, my anxiety spiked. All the work I’d been doing had been upended one night in November. I felt I had been stripped of the control I thought I’d gained over my anxiety and depression. In an attempt to gain some measure of control, I started taking walks. Nothing too crazy: No Henry David Thoreau or Forrest Gump journey of self-discovery, nothing that took me far from my neighborhood. I live across the street from a large park, and as February started to settle in, as Trump started to destroy everything he touched, I found some measure of pleasure and stillness in being as close to alone somewhere in New York City as one could get. Sometimes I just listened to the wind blowing, the sound of car horns honking always present in the air. But mostly, I had some soundtrack coming through my earbuds. The day was silent and frozen, the main lawn occupied by a few squirrels. A few weeks earlier, I’d done something that I’d sworn I would never do: I started taking medication to help reduce my anxiety on my own as an adult. Unlike my childhood, where it was prescribed to me by adults who insisted each new med would lead to some cure of my ADHD or depression or anxiety, I had complete say in my decision. Although the anger and sadness about the state of things had not gone away, physically I felt as if a large leaden vest had been lifted off my being. After an over-medicated childhood led me to believe that taking pills was just not for me, the way I felt was a revelation. I stood there, alone in this great big open field, inhaling deeply through my nose, and pushing the air out through my mouth. I was listening to “The Angels of Comfort,” a nearly eleven-minute track by Iasos. I had a cup of hibiscus tea in my hand. I thought for a second how funny and crunchy it all felt, but that subsided after a few more breaths. I wanted, and still want, to get better, to feel happy, to overcome as many of the obstacles this world puts in front of me, and, most of all, to live in the moment. Like meditation, just admitting this felt like a subversive activity, and I realized that what I was listening to played into that. That, like meditation, medication, or any of the things we believe could possibly help lead us down a more enlightened, happier path, it’s easier to be skeptical of music labeled “new age.” For every Eno album for airports or Joanna Brouk, there’s always somebody out there who thinks they can make a profit off the idea that music can soothe and heal. There are people who can take basically any musical genre and pillage its reputation so badly that any other artist associated will no doubt suffer. That, more than anything, is the greatest sin of new age music: it’s a genre that really doesn’t exist, yet encompasses so many strains of sound that people don’t want to give a chance to or outright don’t understand. Yet as we hurdle towards who knows whatever is next, just taking simple solace in the repetition, the mellow, the quiet—these things, at least for me, can bring about a few moments of necessary peace. And that, in these anxious days, amounts to a treasure.
Free, or Something Like It

After their peak in the 1980s and 1990s, material premiums have become an increasingly rare advertising tactic.

Mom always told us that our yellow dishes came from dog food. The plates were sturdy, easy to stack—perfect for grapes, cookies, pizza slices with the babysitter. We used proper plates for dinner, but still put our milk in the plastic tumblers, picking fights over who got the one with a handle. A few chipped or broke over the years. Three kids put dinnerware through a lot of spills. But that was the appeal of these dishes: even if they did break, they were free. Sort of. The school bus-colored dishware residing in my mother's cupboards to this day are free premiums: material items offered as incentives by retailers in exchange for making a purchase or completing another action. Sometimes these premiums are packed in with the item, like the cards of racist baseball legends, acrobatic toothpick-and-paper clowns, and plastic dogs and wolves found in Cracker Jack boxes of yesteryear that collectors will now pay hundreds for. But more often, consumers have to put in a little effort to get their reward: open an account, buy a certain amount of a product, sign up for a rewards program, or save up and send in packaging. These extras aren't actually free—you always have to buy something to get them — but they seem free, thus increasing the perceived value of the original purchase. Plus, the time you spend engaged in pursuit of the premium deepens your relationship to the company. Mom had to buy a lot of Purina dog food to get that dinnerware. The plates long outlasted the collies fed by the dog food, and when I got pets of my own, I started buying Purina cat food instinctively. But, after their peak in the 1980s and 1990s, material premiums have become an increasingly rare advertising tactic. Marlboro doesn't give out miles to be redeemed for cowboy hats and cargo pants anymore. Marketing is as motivated by trends as any other industry, and this tactic got tired around the turn of the century. The quality of manufactured goods has declined, so they don't seem as worth it; besides, with more and more sales taking place online, physical rewards seem less appealing than, say, free shipping. Discounts, coupons, and rebates abound, as do virtual rewards. Even Cracker Jacks have eschewed their iconic prizes. Instead of digging through caramel popcorn for a sticker, temporary tattoo, or other ephemeral piece of precious junk, kids will find a code for an augmented-reality mobile game. An app does seem like less of a treasure. But it's still an incentive, both for the bored customer at a baseball game, and for the advertiser who gets something perhaps more valuable than loyalty: their data. * Benjamin T. Babbitt and Phineas T. Barnum were good friends back in the 1850s, each the other's only peer in advertising. I like to imagine them as characters on a hangout sitcom, coming up with wacky half-hour schemes to lure the burgeoning class of American consumers into a renaissance of suckers. For as it was circus man Barnum who paved the path of relentless self-promotion that so many Kardashians follow today, it was Babbitt who figured out the power of a promise of something free (in this case, a lithograph) to get customers to buy soap from him and not someone else. Premiums—usually called gifts, presents, or prizes in the 19th century—caught on quick. By the 1860s, gift book enterprises11Not to be confused with gift books, an industry of coffee-table-esque books that thrived from the 1820s through the 1850s. were common fixtures in urban centers, a sort of lottery whereby the purchaser of a book would get a random gift, according to Dr. Wendy Woloson's "Wishful Thinking: Retail Premiums in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America." These stores were finely furnished, but the books were mostly unsold remainders, otherwise unsellable, and the gifts were usually very cheap—twenty-five cents at the low end. The tantalizing prospect of a $100 watch almost never materialized, but it was there, bringing customers back to the thimbles and toiletries they actually won again and again. It wasn't the prize that was really the appeal. It was the anticipation, the excitement of what might be, what might transform them into something new, better, shiny too. These early premiums schemes were largely composed of "marginal, slightly shady independent operators," said Dr. Woloson, who is an assistant professor of history at Rutgers. Gift book exchanges weren't exactly ethical, manipulating consumer emotions to get them to buy two things they wouldn't have wanted in the first place, but at least they didn't defraud war widows, as would other free premiums of the era. Prize packages were sealed envelopes filled with "writing notions," basically scraps of paper unsuitable for printing elsewhere, and a cheap pin like you might find today in a gumball machine capsule. They were sold around the country, a sort of premium cum lottery cum multi-level-marketing scheme wherein agents (often soldiers, and later, their widows) were led to believe that they could make $15 a week22$240 in today’s economy selling prize packages (they did not). Even more exploitative were gift distributions, a complicated scheme in which con men leveraged people's #FOMO to sell tickets to lotteries that never actually existed. They were still effective: as many as 2,000 of these schemes circulated in the 1860s, taking advantage of a consumer market that was both avid and naive. "[R]etail premium schemes played on people's deep-seated emotions—hope, anticipation, desire, fear, and anxiety—and in doing so, encouraged and shaped a new consuming audience on a mass scale," Dr. Woloson wrote in "Wishful Thinking." "Free is the most powerful word in the history of marketing," said Dr. Jason Chambers, Associate Professor of Advertising at the University of Illinois. The prospect of getting something for nothing made consumers "itchy with desire," to quote Dr. Woloson. Even after gift distributions collapsed as all cons do, premiums continued to evolve as a tactic. Adolph Busch was especially fond of giving loyal customers hat pins, watch fobs, and jack knives branded with his logo; one iconic Busch premium was a print of Custer's Last Stand, given away first to promote what was then the new "draught beer for connoisseurs," Michelob. If you're like me and you're lucky enough to still have your grandma around, she probably remembers the next big moment in free premiums: S&H Green Stamps. Though the practice of giving tokens for loyalty goes back to Condor coins of the late 18th century, it wasn't until the late 19th century that these programs really began in earnest. They took their cues from the success of programs in which women received rewards for selling soap to their friends (in practice, closer to Avon than Younique). "Trading stamps were first issued in 1892 by the Milwaukee-based Schuster's department store, and were originally called the blue trading stamp system. Shoppers received a certain number of stamps with each product purchase, which they then pasted into booklets designed for the purpose," writes Dr. Woloson in a chapter on premiums in her upcoming book, The History of Crap. "Each booklet [represented] $50 in retail purchases, and could be redeemed for one dollar in merchandise [for a] two percent discount." The measly discount wasn't the appeal: it was the enjoyment of collecting, and the attendant anticipation it built. These booklets recalled another popular pastime of the Victorian age: scrapbooking. It was a sentimental era, and people were already inclined to hold onto stuff; Sperry and Hutchinson just monetized that notion. The many consumers who were incentivized by the prospect of stamps but never actually redeemed them only increased the profit margin. And for those who did redeem their stamps, it was still a good way to get rid of merchandise that was not high quality. As the country entered the Depression, the word "free" was more powerful than ever—with a new focus on practicalities. In the booming economy of the jazz age, rewards were what Dr. Woloson called "petty luxuries, [such as] decorated china vases, or a gold-tipped writing pen, or something that you didn't need but something that you might want." But when budgets got tight, utility won out over shininess, and decoration took a backseat to durability. Depression glassware was everywhere in the 1930s retail landscape, packaged with cereal, handed out to moviegoers, and included with tanks of gas—increasing sales in the worst economy for a number of different industries.  "[It was] an opportunity for different manufacturers to support one another in different ways," said Dr. Chambers. And though they aren't top quality (air bubbles were common) the patterns and colors of the translucent bowls, plates, and other dinnerware are still sought after today. [[{"fid":"6704511","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"4":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"4"}}]] Another Depression-era premium had a more substantive and even spiritual impact on our cultural fabric. Under ancient Kosher dietary regulations, coffee, considered a legume, had been forbidden during Passover since its emergence in the 10th century.  "Jewish grocery stores would put away coffee with the chametz under the incorrect assumption that coffee beans were kitniyot when in fact they are technically a fruit not a bean in that sense,” explained Elie Rosenfeld, CEO of Joseph Jacobs Advertising, in this Forward piece by Anne Cohen. But then, Joseph Jacobs entered the scene. In the 1920s, Jacobs convinced a Manhattan rabbi to spread the word that coffee beans were Kosher while talking Maxwell House into targeting this demographic. A decade later, Maxwell began printing a lovely blue and white haggadah (the text read at Passover seder services) to Jewish customers who bought a can of Maxwell House. Maxwell has printed 50 million copies of the Maxwell Haggadah, and it was even used by President Obama at White House seders. With the advent of World War II, America's advertising and manufacturing efforts were consumed with the fighting overseas. "A lot of the cheap giveaways were imported from other places, like Japan and Germany, and we're of course not getting those products from those places," said Dr. Chambers. "[American] manufacturers were contributing to the war effort. They're not making TV trays." Instead, they were making tanks. The attentions of the women, primary redeemers of premiums, were elsewhere too. "Women [were] thinking about stamps and coupons and things, but not to get free stuff, it's because that's what they needed to do to get their butter for the week," said Dr. Woloson. Whereas green stamps added value and an element of anticipation to the chore of grocery shopping, rationing elevated the collecting of coupons to a necessity. But once the war was over, America's consumer spirit was back and hungrier than ever before. The baby boom brought focus to children as a major market; unhardened by the difficulties of the Depression and war, these kids were ready to hoard cheap toys. This wasn't a new tactic, exactly: the first premium targeted at children were Kellogg's Jungleland moving picture books, included as a part of its packaging in 1908, and bubblegum came with baseball cards starting in the 1940s. But it was Sam Gold, of Gold Premiums of New York and Gold Manufacturing Corporation, who really believed that catching the attention of children was the best way to sell to their parents. His companies made toys, cutouts, gum, and other kid-friendly products for cereals, pioneering the Saturday morning cartoon tie-in; the first premium Gold sold was a Rin-Tin-Tin telegraph key with Nabisco cereal. In a plot twist straight out of Mad Men, Gold died during a 1965 premium presentation to Cracker Jack. While they were indoctrinating children through cereal box prizes, marketers were slowly realizing that another major market could be targeted through premiums. Advertisers had long misused images of black Americans as grotesque stereotypes to appeal to white consumers, and to be sure, this continued after WWII; one online collection of Sam Gold premiums includes Aunt Jemima paper dolls from the 1940s. But some advertisers were beginning to integrate, especially with the launch of major black magazines like Ebony and Jet as powerful vehicles to reach black consumers. "The main advertising manufacturers that were specifically interested in the African-American consumer market [were interested] in ways that were different from the general consumer market," said Dr. Chambers. "In those cases, you still would have seen the same kind of things that you'd see in the general market—they just had a different focus. Coke and Pepsi in particular [in the '40s through the '60s] utilized aspects of African-American history as a free premium or pack-in or send-away." Tobacco and beverage companies in particular launched premium programs focused on African-American history lasting for decades; for one example, Dr. Chambers recalled busts of black innovators by famed sculptor Ruth Inge Hardison in a series called "Ingenious Americans" as a premium for Old Taylor whiskey. Though the market was specializing to target different demographics, white women at home were still as much a target as ever. Housewares were a hot market in 1950s premiums. Boxes of detergent came with dish towels, knives, and flatware right in the carton. Decorated jars of jelly and peanut butter and decanters of maple syrup to be kept and reused after their contents were spent were often the premiums themselves, capitalizing on the Depression mentality of repurposing everything. While premiums were often right inside the packaging (or existed as the packaging itself), consumers were also willing to put in more effort and send away for their prizes. After all, housewives were expected to put their homes and children before themselves. They were used to giving away their own valuable time. Trading stamp programs, which required more effort, flourished among housewives until the gas crisis of the 1970s, when pinched gas stations stopped accepting stamps. * As trading stamps faded, premium programs grew. Cereal box premiums were so successful in targeting children that their advertisement on television was banned in 1974. Cigarette companies, reeling from similar restrictions in 1972, competed with each other to attract customers through rewards programs. Dr. Chambers remembered his father switching back and forth between different brands based on who had the gifts he wanted. This new wave of prizes were more likely to be branded, increasing the advertising value for corporations looking for a new foothold in the cultural consciousness. For some, the premiums were as habit-forming as nicotine. "[In] the 1980s and 1990s, I [was] addicted to getting free things," wrote Mary Potter Kenyon in her 2013 book Coupon Crazy: The Science, the Savings, and the Stories Behind America's Extreme Obsession. Kenyon acquired a wide variety of products from these giveaways—a fancy umbrella from Gloria Vanderbilt perfume boxes, a coffee maker from coffee lids for her mom, Christmas lights from M&M bags. And especially toys and branded T-shirts for her six children. Until her teenage daughter told her that she didn't want a denim jacket with the Energizer Bunny on it, the Kenyon kids were walking billboards. "Growing up poor, to give my kids this magic Christmas was an amazing thing for me, and it was all with company premiums," Kenyon said. Kenyon put a lot of her time and effort into getting premiums by sending in packaging, receipts, and proofs of purchase. When she ran low on her own meticulously organized store of flattened boxes and saved wrappers, she turned to her family, friends, and neighbors—and their trash. She rooted through just about every garbage can she came across at the public pool or park for Hershey's wrappers to redeem for T-shirts. "We went to the swimming pool just as much for the swimming as for the candy wrappers in the trash bin," she said. [[{"fid":"6704506","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"3":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"3"}}]] Kenyon's deal-hunting mindset was typical of the refunders in the 1970s through 1990s; there were magazines and conventions devoted to this community of consumers who sought out coupons, premiums, and rebates from companies. But while Kenyon stayed inside the law, others did not. Some refunders were way beyond simply using a neighbor's legally purchased discards: they were buying cash registers to create fake receipts, pooling their resources at conventions, and renting PO Boxes under false names to avoid the one-per-household requirement. In one case, the town of Rock Valley, Iowa was reprimanded by the USPS investigators in 1992 for a cash-for-trash scheme that involved half of the town's 2540 residents, netting a local fundamentalist religious school half a million dollars over two decades. As savvy early advertisers exploited credulous 19th century consumers, coupon queens and rebate gamers exploited advertising executives who underestimated the savvy of dedicated deal-seekers. This contributed to a tightening of these programs in the late 1990s. Before long, premiums were becoming rarer and rarer; even boxes of cereal aren't packaged with toys anymore. Fraud wasn't the only factor that doomed the free premium frenzy. Pepsi and Coke and Marlboro and Camel and other retailers were constantly one-upping each other, escalating their goods to attract new customers. Pepsi found themselves in a costly lawsuit when they advertised a Harrier jump jet for seven million points and someone called their bluff.33It was also mocked in an B-plot on a seventh season episode of 30 Rock (the one with Liz Lemon's wedding), in which Jenna was herself a free premium in a 1990s Surge commercial. Pepsi won, but the case itself was representative of the arms race premium programs found themselves in in the late 1990s. Premiums could be a nuisance for corporations outside of the courtroom, too. "Manufacturers found the opportunity to transition to other things that had fewer logistical headaches," said Dr. Chambers, noting the possibility of breakage and all the other costs that come with transporting physical goods. Advertisers are always trying to trick you a little bit—you know this, even though they try to make you forget. And when you wise up, they change their tactics. Consumers were more and more used to these inducements, which no longer held the power they did 100 years before. The quality of cheap goods were not improving. Carcinogens like soda pop and cigarettes—two of the most premium-friendly industries—fell out of fashion as minimalism came back into style. A new generation of advertisers were similarly bored with the advertising tactics that had fascinated their mothers. Both sides of the equation were getting more sophisticated, outgrowing the tactic. Everyone was ready to move on to the next thing. The next thing was the Internet. The rise of the World Wide Web changed the landscape of retail and advertising as much as it did everything else. Premium programs were difficult to transact online; virtual rewards are way easier. Gasoline points aren't going to break in delivery. Discounts and free shipping are much more popular with online shoppers, as are rebates (which may explain why they survived while their cousin the premium grew frail). The premiums of yore didn't collect increasingly valuable customer data, and they're not as targeted as the ads you're probably blocking right now. * Premiums are not dead, exactly. The beauty industry still loves its gifts with purchase. Tote bags offered as inducements to donate to NPR or subscribe to The New Yorker are intellectual status symbols. When I bought some axe earrings from Etsy recently, I was pleased but not surprised to find a little axe pendant included as a freebie. Pepsi tries to restart PepsiStuff every so often, and Purina still advertises its rewards program on the back of the bags of food I buy for my cat, though I'm nowhere near organized enough to take advantage of it. A friend with young children recently received a number of tiny Marvel figurines for buying participating products at Kroger; she plans on making it into her own rewards program to encourage her young children to do summer reading. Children are still motivated by toys, and Happy Meals will always come with a pack-in premium. "McDonalds is different," said Dr. Chambers. "There's nobody that's done anything as effective as Happy Meals." It is their point of entry for future customers, and it offers its own opportunities to create revenue through advertising tie-ins. Because of their reach and their ubiquity, they become that wonderful partner for the Olympics or Disney." Though there have been some occasional hits from other fast food chains—Hardee's had the California Raisins in the 1980s, and a friend on Facebook recalled asking for Land Before Time puppets from Burger King for Christmas one year—no one else can consistently compete. "It is their continued point of difference, especially in that young person's space," Dr. Chambers said. Happy Meal toys are not going away until McDonald's goes away. Business gifts are also thriving, especially the arena of inducements to big events like baseball games. But there are signs of fatigue even there. While swag is still a major prong in marketing pharmaceuticals, even they have seen better days: OxyContin doesn't make pedometers anymore. Sometimes getting a reward isn't just about the item—it's about the feeling of getting a little control back from a capitalist structure we cannot opt out of. Not long after the 2008 recession, there was a brief craze for couponing, chronicled in the 2010-2012 TLC show Extreme Couponing. "We were screwed by the system, and we want to screw them back," Dr. Woloson said of the post-recession surge in couponing. "It's a form of empowerment." The idea of empowerment is one way to build loyalty, even if it feels like revenge. The political can build a personal connection to a brand, too. Last summer, Penzeys Spices gave away Mexican vanilla with purchase as a fuck-you to President Trump, a political, memorable, and effective free premium that caused sales to spike and transformed the company's brand, earning goodwill from liberals everywhere. "The old methods of marketing are coming to an end," Bill Penzey bragged of his giveaways in Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "and this is the new marketing." But it really isn't that new. You won't see banks giving away toasters unless you're watching 1990s period piece Fresh Off The Boat, but banks do sometimes use premiums to induce new customers; I walked by a grill offered as an incentive by the Walmart bank while editing the second draft of this piece. My husband, a mailman, reported from his route one day to tell me about a display of dog accessories, wine corks, and backpacks advertised to new customers at Landmark Bank in Lawrence, Kansas. When I called Becky Tourtillott, Landmark's vice president of marketing, she confirmed that the days of "one-size-fits-all" rewards are long gone, and even among the rewards they do offer, premiums aren't the real draw. "Of our top ten most redeemed items, eight of them are gift cards," Tourtillott said. Even S&H Green Stamps have transitioned to virtual rewards in a bid for continued survival. When you can buy anything you want easily online, money is often more enticing than a hunk of plastic. But the thing about money is that it's cold and unfeeling; as on any big occasion, a gift is more fun to unwrap than a check. "They're trying to make an appeal on an emotional rather than an economic register," said Dr. Woloson. In "Wishful Thinking," she quoted early twentieth century writer Henry S. Bunting, noting that premiums worked because they appealed “not to reason, but to the heart, to the emotions, to sentiment, to good will on the basis of implied acquaintanceship.” But while they're fondly remembered, premiums are only sporadically relevant in the 2018 marketplace. Some of the tactics remain; Dr. Woloson pointed out that virtual rewards programs use the language of inclusion (e.g. clubs, membership) even though "you're just customer, you're just a data point." The retro appeal of free trinkets can't compete with corporate thirst for your personal information to better target you. "There's always the possibility of nostalgia marketing, if you want to utilize that," Dr. Chambers said, but he's skeptical that premiums will ever come back in a big way. But the sentimental residue they always sought to leave remains. We still have a relationship with these companies. My aunt attributes her lifelong love of swans to a soap-related free premium her older sisters ordered for her as a baby. My grandma recalls the bike she got my uncle Tom from green stamps. My dad's obsession with baseball was launched in part by baseball cards on the back of Post cereal. My mom got animated and nostalgic talking about a particular premium: a director’s chair emblazoned with my name, which I adored as a child. Mary Potter Kenyon once had a dedicated room with shelves and cabinets full of old receipts and flattened boxes and empty bags. When she moved in 1998, it prompted a realization: the era of free stuff was over, and she needed space for her six children more than she needed space for trash. "There was no point to saving all my garbage anymore," she said. She made a bonfire and burned all the scraps she'd spent so long collecting, incinerating her dreams of all the things she once hoped to get for free, or something like it.