Hazlitt Magazine

The Hazards of Carpooling

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

The Keeper of the Bees

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

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

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

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‘A Little More Like a Career and Less Like a Stunt’: An Interview with Robert Kolker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kate Bush invented the internet?

The first sound anyone heard on a Kate Bush album was a whale song, at the start of “Moving,” track one on 1978’s The Kick Inside. Put another way, the first sound anyone heard on a Kate Bush album was a sample of a recording made by Frank Watlington, a US naval engineer who accidentally heard whale songs while listening for Soviet submarines off the coast of Bermuda with an underwater microphone. Put another way, the first sound anyone heard on a Kate Bush album was a sample of the song “Slowed Down Solo Whale,” itself a sample of the recording by Watlington and released on what remains one of the best-selling nature albums of all time, Songs of the Humpback Whale (1970), produced and arranged by zoologist and bio-acoustician Roger Payne. Put another way, the first sound anyone heard on a Kate Bush album was the vocalization of nonhuman mammals declaring fitness—wanting, as has been widely presumed but still not fully understood, to connect, to fuck.  The first sound anyone hears on “Deeper Understanding,” the sixth song on Kate Bush’s 1989 album The Sensual World, is Bush’s own voice, immediately: “As the people here turn colder / I turn to my computer / And spend my evenings with it / Like a friend.” The vagaries of Bush’s introduction—who is “I” and where is “here”?—are soon grounded in period technology: “I was loading a new program / I had ordered from a magazine.” “Deeper Understanding” is related by an isolated, melancholy narrator, ground down by the detachment of contemporary life. Exhausted and unable to connect with friends, colleagues and lovers, the narrator becomes obsessed with an AI-like mail-ordered computer program designed to keep its user company. The computer intimately appreciates and speaks back to the narrator. The song’s chorus is the computer’s voice: “Hello, I know that you’re unhappy / I bring you love, a deeper understanding.” Soon, for the narrator, satisfaction can’t come from anything else. “I’ve never felt such pleasure,” they confess. “Nothing else seemed to matter / I neglected my bodily needs.” Thirty years after its release, this song about a person of unspecified gender falling in love with their computer feels both retro-kitsch and relatable. (“This song about Kate installing a program from a cd rom <3,” texted one of my friends to me when Bush’s remasters were released in late 2018.) In the first and second verses, Bush appears to sing of the “execute” command, common to the incipient personal computer. In the first verse, the narrator “presses execute,” a variation perhaps on the “return” or “enter” key, and/or the “.exe” command in MS-DOS. In the second verse, the verb changes: “I pick up the phone and go execute.” This may conjure early network-dialup connections that culminated in the Internet, not yet commonplace at the time of “Deeper Understanding”’s release. Yet in the direct context of Bush’s lyrics, “go execute” means her narrator is executing socially, cutting themselves off from IRL family who are attempting to “intervene” in the narrator’s compulsive relationship with the Siri-/Alexa-like program they’ve just installed in their “little black box.” “Are you lonely, are you lost?” Bush sings in the first pre-chorus, as the computer. If you imagine these words coming from the tinny speakers of some dystopian PC, the newly unwrapped diskette gurgling forebodingly in its drive, the next line—“This voice console is a must”—deflates the drama, suggesting either installation instructions or, if it’s now the narrator speaking, nerdy enthusiasm. Throughout “Deeper Understanding,” the clinical and the tender comingle. Bush’s song has no resolution. The fate of her narrator is unclear, though there are sounds at the end seemingly meant to be organic, soothing: Bulgarian folk singing and, finally, birds chirping. A window has been opened; something has been set free. “Deeper Understanding” could be read as a cautionary tale about human overdependence on computers, one commonly seen in, but certainly not exclusive to, culture from the 1980s. (In a 1983 episode of the TV series Fame, a teacher challenges a student to make art on a computer, with the student accepting, only to discover the computer has been brought to the School of the Arts to replace its beloved secretary.) By the time Bush redid “Deeper Understanding” for 2011’s Director’s Cut, for which she took songs from The Sensual World and its 1993 follow-up, The Red Shoes, and stripped them of their supposedly dated studio production, some critics began (ironically, given Director’s Cut’s impetus) to point to “Deeper Understanding”—mail-ordered program, voice console, and all—as prescient. “Kate Bush invents the internet with ‘Deeper Understanding,’” reads a headline for an April 2015 AV Club thinkpiece by Katie Rife. Not just the Internet: with Bush’s “tired” and “unhappy” character who connects with their computer so intensely they “could not eat” and “could not sleep,” Bush had also perhaps invented Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD), a pathology unrecognized by the World Health Organization but Googled enough to have its own Wikipedia page. (Gaming disorder was only recently classified by the WHO, in May, 2019.) Bush herself does not feel her “lonely” and “lost” character is ruined by the end of the song. “I suppose I really liked the idea of deep, spiritual communication—deep love which should come from humans—coming from the last place you'd expect it to, the coldest piece of machinery,” she said in an October 1989 interview with Melody Maker. “And yet I do feel there is a link. I do feel that, in some ways, computers could take us into a level of looking at ourselves that we’ve never seen before, because they could come in from outside all this… I think a lot of things in nature are almost program-based, and a lot of things that we do are very mechanical, so maybe somehow going right through a computer, almost so that you come out the other side—going through all that science—will take us to something very spiritual but very earthy.” Bush was inspired to write “Deeper Understanding” after hearing physicist Stephen Hawking communicate through his text-to-voice synthesizer. “In some ways it was the closest I’d ever come to hearing God speak,” she told Pulse magazine in December, 1989. She wanted to find a sonic equivalent to this godly voice, and while she plays the computer in the song, her voice synthesized in a possible replication of Hawking’s, she searched for an alternate godly voice for song’s end, when her narrator reaches that “other side.” This wound up being those Bulgarian folk singers, Trio Bulgarka. By 1989, Kate Bush was an international pop star. She was following up her successful Hounds of Love record with a personal work that subtly communicated her disintegrating romantic relationship with Del Palmer, her musical collaborator for over a decade. What is a song about a shut-in PC user doing in the middle of a breakup album? In promotional interviews for The Sensual World, Bush would repeat that “Deeper Understanding” is a song about “being killed by love.” Bush’s own significant relationship with technology, notably during the feverish making of her 1982 album The Dreaming, makes “Deeper Understanding” not merely autobiographical, but among the most complex love songs she ever wrote. ***  There can be no single inventor of the Internet. Feminist accounts of Internet history, which tend to conflate the Internet with computing, as does “Deeper Understanding,” stress networks, communities, with no fixed origin. Practices of sewing, knitting and weaving, for instance, in which lines come together, mutable by pattern, in a kind of binary code (knits and purls), creating technology such as clothing and tapestries are, arguably, early forms of computing. Such practices also formed the basis of pre-Internet relational networks. Joseph Marie Jacquard’s nineteenth-century automation of the loom with a punch card is often deemed the first computer, but long before Jacquard, there were the female and likely gender-variant weavers who, it is surmised but impossible to confirm, put coded messages into their handiwork, and gossiped while doing it. (Jacquard’s invention made many of these workers obsolete. Those who protested became history’s first Luddites, a term that, unsurprisingly given its origin in labour rights, became pejorative.) There are also the motifs and strategies embedded in Indigenous ways of knowing, from art to navigation, that extend relational networking back millennia, across time and space. Western patriarchy has looked on such pre-digital networks with predictable paranoia. There are the Greek Fates and the Norse Norns, often pictured holding threads or yarn that, when crossed, tell of future doom. During the French Revolution, so-called tricoteuses knitted while watching guillotine executions; in Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, Madame Defarge actually knits the names of those destined for the guillotine in secret code. (cf. “I press execute.”) In Greco-Roman myth, Philomela weaves the story of her rape into a tapestry, identifying her brother-in-law rapist who has cut out her tongue. (In 2018, Katy Waldman published a piece in the New Yorker noting similarities between this myth and the #MeToo movement.) By the early twentieth century, some females were actually called computers, enlisted in service of networking technology that had by that point been coopted by the military. In Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet, Claire L. Evans tells the story of human “computers,” later gendered in productivity units as “kilo-girls”: mathematicians and similarly trained professionals who crunched numbers as part of collective workforces that managed large sets of data. (“Kilo-girls” was a measure of how powerful such collective workforces, i.e., supercomputers, were, a measure of literal bodies. Contemporary coding has a similarly gendered labour force.) If Evans’s book aims to celebrate these early female “computers,” it also tells of cooptation, even collusion. During WWII, the US military developed the top-secret Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC), a room-sized supercomputer powered by a group of women known as the ENIAC Six: Frances Bilas, Betty Jean Jennings, Ruth Lichterman, Kathleen “Kay” McNulty, Elizabeth “Betty” Snyder and Marlyn Wescoff. After the war ended, the computer was revealed to the public, described breathlessly by journalists as “a giant brain” with the focus concertedly on the machine rather than on those who powered it. “The amount of work that had to be done before you could ever get to a machine that was really doing any thinking to me just staggered the mind. I found this very annoying,” Betty Jean Jennings said decades later. “It was more than annoying,” Evans writes. “It effectively erased her.” It can feel odd to give credit where credit is due when one considers what the credit is so often for. What exactly were these women helping to build? The ENIAC Six worked on classified military projects aiming, among other things, to refine and accelerate ballistics. The ENIAC Six’s professional achievements comprise more than the solution of some abstract physics problems. “When their imaginary shell hit the ground, the mathematical model kept going, driving it through the earth with the same velocity and speed as it had while shooting through the air,” Evans writes, describing the faulty trajectory of one of the simulations worked on by the ENIAC Six. “This made the calculation worse than useless. If they didn’t find some way to stop the bullet, they’d embarrass themselves in front of eminent mathematicians, the army, and their employers.” Comparable is the book-turned-film Hidden Figures, in which three Black women in segregationist Virginia—Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe)—are given overdue recognition for putting some white men on the moon. Collective, embodied labour has contributed to the success of the Internet proper, only one of many existing and possible networks, and an entity still owned by the military, the corporate, the male. The Internet and computing are two ways of claiming social practice as a so-called invention. The story of any technology is the story of how we are to each other: how we got here, and how we’re going to get the hell out. ***  “We were working secretly for the military,” begins “Experiment IV,” a bonus track on Kate Bush’s 1986 greatest-hits compilation The Whole Story. “Our experiment in sound was nearly ready to begin / We only know in theory what we are doing / Music made for pleasure, music made to thrill.”  Like “Deeper Understanding,” “Experiment IV” comes from Bush’s own imagination, though it could easily be mistaken as an adaptation of the experiences of the ENIAC Six. The musical technicians in “Experiment IV” believe they are creating a state-of-the-art experiment in sound, perhaps one designed to heal and inspire, until it is revealed to them, at a moment too late to turn back, that they have been building a military-industrial death machine. “They told us all they wanted / Was a sound that could kill someone from a distance,” the chorus goes. “So we go ahead and the meters are over in the red / It’s a mistake in the making.” The technicians in Bush’s song are placed in ambivalent relation to their Frankenstein’s monster. As is fleshed out in the song’s video, directed by Bush, the technicians hold their noses and continue their experiment in sound, guiltily absolving themselves of responsibility as their work turns ethically questionable. “But that dream is your enemy,” Bush sings. “We won't be there to snitch / I just pray that someone there can hit the switch.” “Experiment IV” and “Deeper Understanding” are two Kate Bush songs that are likely about the Fairlight Computer Musical Instrument, also known as the Fairlight CMI synthesizer. This large, expensive machine has been ascribed many firsts, including first visual-digital music sequencer (you could compose music on its cathode-ray-tube screen, writing notation with a light pen) and first digital sampler (you could hook up a microphone to the computer, record any sound, and then pitch-shift it on a keyboard). The Fairlight is best known for the ORCH5, aka the “orchestra hit,” a sample from the Infernal Dance section of Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird Suite (1910): a dissonant, fortissimo chord that opens the section abruptly and shockingly. The attention-getting ORCH5 became a staple of 1980s and 1990s pop, dance and rap music, so much so that it is now largely unnoticed by listeners and/or understood as a banal marker of the era. It is not a coincidence that the Fairlight’s best-known sound is a violent modernist blast. As a physical object, the machine unmistakably recalls military technology that, in the early 1980s, had only been seen widely in films—its sequencer suggesting ballistic patterning, its return, or execute functions, kinds of detonations.  It is of course natural to view any technology as a kind of murder: machinery meant to replace us, to kill (part of, all of) us—voice, hands, eyes, whatever. In a 1980s Fairlight demonstration video with Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock, an early adopter of the Fairlight (he used it to make his 1983 hit “Rockit”), anticipates this and tries a rebuttal. “These instruments were designed for people to use,” Hancock says. “It’s just another tool, the way an axe is a tool. An axe can be a tool to cut wood, to build a house, or it can be a tool to slaughter your neighbor. The same way a synthesizer can be a tool to really hurt people’s ears and interfere with their lives… it can be a tool to make a really nice-sounding instrument that can really affect people in a positive way. And it all depends on the person that’s using it.” Bush’s psych-op technicians in “Experiment IV” capture, among other things, “the painful cries of mothers” and “a terrifying scream”: “we recorded it and put it into our machine.” For a 1986 lip-synched performance of “Experiment IV” on BBC1’s TV program Wogan, Bush and her band donned lab coats in a seated recreation of the video concept. Shots of Bush at a wooden desk clearly show the logo of a bandmate’s Fairlight CMI in the background. It’s all very A Clockwork Orange.  It has long been recognized that Bush was an early Fairlight aficionado; the charged words “pioneer” and “trailblazer” are often used. Peter Vogel, the Australian co-developer of the Fairlight, explains in an interview for Vox that the Fairlight and other synthesizers allowed musicians to “create the music you had in your head a lot more easily than if you had to sit down and learn to play instruments from scratch.” Bush is a pianist, though Vogel’s words apply to her in the sense that the Fairlight acted as both a cheat and an expansion. As with the headset microphone Bush developed with sound engineer Gordon “Gunji” Patterson for her 1979 live show Tour of Life so that she could dance and sing at the same time, the Fairlight was not killing any part of her but rather adding something—which her body by turns accepted and rejected.  There were only three Fairlights in the UK in 1979, the year the machine was officially launched. The musician Peter Gabriel, with whom Bush had had a creative relationship since starting out, co-owned a company called Syco Systems that imported electronic instruments. He had his own personal machine, with Syco owning the other two. Bush learned of the Fairlight through Gabriel, according to Bush biographer Graeme Thomson, and rented one while recording her album Never for Ever. Everyone in the studio took turns making noises to record and put into the Fairlight. “We created a huge mess in Abbey Road Studio Two,” remembers John L. Walters, who co-programmed the machine during the sessions, “smashing glasses and sampling them, recording and saving the best-sounding noises as digital files in the Fairlight’s memory.” These glass-breaking noises ended up on Bush’s “Babooshka,” the second single from Never for Ever.  “For someone who had struggled on her first two records to articulate her feelings through sound, discovering the Fairlight was like stumbling into an Aladdin’s Cave of sonic possibilities, opening a door into a new world,” writes Thomson. He quotes Kevin Cann and Sean Mayes, authors of a 1988 book about Bush, who contend that the Fairlight allowed Bush to “layer sounds as she layers ideas.” “She could now add anything—strings, waterfalls, sunbursts—during the writing process itself,” writes Thomson. Says Bush: “As soon as I saw [the Fairlight] I knew I had to have one, and it was going to become a very important part of my work…What attracts me to the Fairlight is its ability to create very human, animal, emotional sounds that don’t actually sound like a machine. I think in a way that’s what I’ve been waiting for.” Not a “new world,” then, but a key to a long-locked door.   The induction of the Fairlight into Bush’s musical and recording repertoire allowed her not only to express herself better, but also to work more independently. Since her teens, Bush, who grew up with two older brothers, had little choice but to collaborate with a large ensemble of male musicians. 1970s rock music, especially progressive or “prog” rock, a genre with which Bush has been associated, was characterized by excessive studio sessions, with a variety of professional “session musicians,” almost uniformly male, being called on to contribute to multi-tracked recordings, produced impeccably in order to showcase the technology through which music was listened to, including FM radio and hi-fi speakers. Bush’s brother John had taken her demos to David Gilmour of the band Pink Floyd and she was duly “discovered” by Gilmour, becoming part of this male prog world. To her frequent mortification, Bush would see her record company, EMI, capitalize on her sexuality in various pinup-style publicity shots. Paradoxically and otherwise, Kate Bush was one of the boys. Though Bush would continue to use male session musicians throughout her career, the Fairlight meant she didn’t always have to. Some were not happy about this. Thomson quotes Never for Ever keyboardist Max Middleton: “She had recorded this penny whistle which Paddy [Bush, Kate's brother] could play and then played it on the keyboard, and I thought it was a bit of a strange circle… Why not just play the pennywhistle?” Guitarist Ian Bairnson was similarly disgruntled: “The technology was going quite wild at the time. I don’t think she’d be upset if I said that at one point she was confused… There were four or five multi-track machines all loaded up and she had God knows how many tracks, she kept overdubbing things on it. It’s that thing about having too much choice.”  If Bush had seen a room of her own in the Fairlight CMI during the recording of Never for Ever, she moved into that room for her next album, the ambitious 1982 digital-pop experiment The Dreaming. Though she entertained working with a few producers, including Tony Visconti, she ended up producing the album herself. Producer Hugh Padgham, whom Bush used on preliminary sessions for The Dreaming, parted after only three weeks. Bush hired session guitarists but used little of their work in the final product. Session musician Brian Bath speaks of The Dreaming as if it had deleted him: “I just stepped aside in the end, I think I walked away… I felt a bit superfluous to what was going on. After five hours of playing the same bit you think, What do I do? Am I going anywhere, is anything happening?” Something was definitely happening. The creative delving fostered by the Fairlight pushed daily recording sessions upwards of 20 hours during the late phases of Never for Ever, but this was nothing compared to The Dreaming. Bush has described the period after Never for Ever as “a sort of terrible introverted depression.” Writing songs for The Dreaming brought her out of this depression, but a manic phase was to follow. As Bush moved into recording the album, she loaned a Fairlight and then, near the end, purchased one for herself. Her relationship with the computer would not just aid but inform the album’s concept and song structures. The computer was to become her, her art. When, seven years later, Bush wrote “Deeper Understanding,” a song about someone falling madly, dangerously in love with their computer, she would speak acutely from personal experience. Initial tinkering with the Fairlight was akin to flirting. Bush’s engineer on The Dreaming, Nick Launay, supported her as she developed a playful early process. “The fact that she was not quite in mastery of the technology was both thrilling and time consuming,” writes Thomson, describing Bush and Launay “digging away” at The Dreaming’s songs, in the obsessive-compulsive, never-quite-done, limitless-archive-of-test-files way that digital technology abets. According to Thomson, the two often “[chased] their tails…ending up back where they started.” Soon, Bush was neglecting her bodily needs. Though at the time she was known in the British media as a devoted vegetarian, active dancer and sometime yogi, Bush was no health nut. She liked to chain-smoke while in the studio, for instance. “We were always sat in front of this desk, just me and her,” remembers Launay of The Dreaming sessions. “And at the end of the desk there were two huge bars of Cadbury’s milk chocolate and this huge bag of weed.” “Every night we ate take-away food,” concurs Bush, “watched the evening news and returned to the dingy little treasure trove [i.e. the studio] to dig for jewels.” By the time Bush got to the end of recording The Dreaming, she had hired engineer Paul Hardiman, who attests to the tight intertwining of Bush and the Fairlight. She was self-isolating, with the exception of her lover, the bassist and sound engineer Del Palmer. Thomson’s version of the making of The Dreaming reads like a love triangle between Bush, Palmer and the Fairlight, with, in the chain of erotic command, Bush reporting to the Fairlight, and Palmer to Bush. “Del later talked about ‘coming up’ from the windowless basement studio as though they were on a submarine,” writes Thomson. Says Hardiman, “Musicians were not around most of the time.… After their particular overdub was finished that was it until next time. The only constant was Del.” In the durational final sessions for The Dreaming, “the fabric of reality started to warp and fray,” according to Thomson. Encouraged by the Fairlight’s ability to mutate the recorded voice, Bush experimented with giving her singing a variety of tones straying from the willowy, girlish, “Wuthering Heights” soprano for which she had become known. Rerecording the master vocals in little sections that could then be digitally manipulated, Bush began screaming and grunting in the studio to give her voice texture, drinking milk and devouring chocolate bars to produce more mucous in her throat. The last two months of The Dreaming’s recording sessions coincided with the Falklands War. Gruesome news reports came through TV screens on studio breaks, with Palmer worrying he would be conscripted. By the end of the sessions, Hardiman claims Bush “was exhausted, and on nothing but a grape diet,” working at least fifteen-hour days in the studio and then listening to rough takes afterwards and preparing for the next day’s sessions, barely sleeping at all. “Even during meal breaks at the studio she would be tinkering with the Fairlight in the control room,” writes Thomson. Bush: “When I come out of the studio, I feel like a Martian.” Bush would speak of the recording of The Dreaming as “the hardest thing I’ve ever done… even harder than touring. It was worrying, very frightening.” The album itself is about worrying and frightening things. Its title track recounts the colonial mining practices in Australia (where the Fairlight originates) that displaced Indigenous communities and ceremonies. Bush’s self-isolation is the arguable motif of “All the Love,” in which, inspired by a malfunctioning answering machine, she stitches together samples of the portion of messages in which her friends and family bid goodbye, as if she’s not been heard from for days. (cf. “I go execute.”) Thomson suggests the lesson of The Dreaming can be found in a lyric from “I Leave It Open,” in which Bush growls through a processor, her voice sporadically played backwards as she becomes both Faust and Mephistopheles: “Harm is in us.” Bush took a six month "rest cure" after making The Dreaming, by orders of her doctor father, who diagnosed her with stress and nervous fatigue. She had tried to go on vacation to Jamaica immediately after finishing the album but it didn’t work; it didn’t switch anything off. “I went from this dingy little London studio with no windows to absolute paradise,” Bush said. “I could barely stand it. Even the sound of the birds was deafening.” The years following The Dreaming marked a now-celebrated period of self-determination for Bush. She would sing and write of attachment—love, lust, ambivalence, the pain of severance. A trilogy of albums, co-engineered by Palmer and recorded with him as the sole constant studio presence, loosely represents the phases of a long-term relationship: 1985’s Hounds of Love (limerence, infatuation, loss of innocence), 1989’s The Sensual World (co-dependence, finding and losing oneself in another, romantic failure) and 1993’s The Red Shoes (saying goodbye). The Sensual World was the last album on which Bush used the Fairlight. It is also a record about her disintegrating relationship with Palmer. After The Red Shoes, at the point of the couple’s breakup, Bush would not use the Fairlight again and not release another album for twelve years, though Palmer would return to assist on and co-engineer her return, Aerial. “I feel very relaxed with [Del],” Bush said to the press on Aerial’s release. “In some ways, in the nicest possible way, it’s almost like he’s not there.” With his handsome, slender face and faded muttonchops, Palmer appears in the video for “Experiment IV.” He plays one of the subjects of the musical technicians’ search for a sound that “could kill someone from a distance.” We first see him in shadows, strapped to a chair and outfitted with wires. A little black box is placed on a plinth before him. The technicians retreat behind glass, playing sounds through the box in order to observe his reactions. A sound emerges from the box that soon materializes as a sylph, played by Bush in a curly pink wig. Bush-as-sylph blows Palmer a kiss, then pulls her face off to reveal her true identity, a Munch-like ghoul, a Golem of sound. The video’s POV shifts to this ghoul-Golem, and there is a fallout in the secret bunker in which the experiment is being conducted, with most of the staff collapsing to the ground, dead or in shock, except one cloaked official who exits the bunker with the experiment’s dossier. The last shot is of the official climbing into a van to make an escape. A face is revealed: it’s a winking Kate, putting a finger to her lips. *** Only weeks after “Experiment IV” was released in 1986, the Irish actor Siobhan McKenna died. It was then, during the initial writing phases for The Sensual World, that Kate Bush likely first heard, or heard again, McKenna’s recorded, 1956 soliloquization of the character Molly Bloom’s stream-of-consciousness monologue from the last chapter of James Joyce’s influential modernist novel Ulysses. Bush’s encounter with McKenna’s recording would form the basis of the song “The Sensual World,” the initial version of which excerpted Molly’s words verbatim. It would also form the basis of the album’s centering of female experience. According to The Sensual World’s liner notes, Del Palmer programmed the album’s percussion tracks on the Fairlight. As Bush worked through the album and, presumably, her breakup with Palmer, she would form a new relationship, a self-fashioned antidote, perhaps, to her encounter with the Fairlight during The Dreaming, when Palmer was her brother in arms. The notoriously withholding Joyce estate would eventually forbid Bush from using Joyce’s words directly in “The Sensual World.” So Bush transposed her lyrics, with her conceit about Molly “stepping out of the page” and “into the sensual world” seeming a response to the estate's censure—lines that would become the song’s refrain and the album’s name. In Joyce, Molly remembers her sexual encounters in a half-dream, fantasizing about what she might do apart from her husband Leopold (sucking pretty cocks that aren’t his), mocking his sexual ineptitude while recalling their premarital bliss. “Yes” is the famous last word of Ulysses, Molly’s word, Joyce’s concept of the open feminine. In “The Sensual World,” Bush adds an “oooo” before the yes—as if listening intently, as if in rapt dialogue. In October, 1988, Bush met Trio Bulgarka for the first time, later noting the coincidence of the first letters of their first names spelling “YES”—Yanka Rupkina, Eva Georgieva and Stoyanka Boneva. Trio Bulgarka were not on “The Sensual World” but they, like Molly, represented an eminent encounter. “I’ve never really worked with such hard-working professional people,” Bush told BBC Radio One in 1989, “and I’ve never worked with women either, which I found fabulous. It was very exciting for me, working with women creatively.” If the Fairlight was Bush saying “yes” to independence, Trio Bulgarka was Bush saying “yes” to finally working with session musicians who were female. Kate’s world-music aficionado brother Paddy brought Bulgarian music to her attention in 1985. Bush was over a year into recording Hounds of Love, on which her song “Jig of Life” featured a Bulgarian tapan drum. Bush wanted to collaborate but was shy to contact the Trio, who had contributed to the fetishized compilation album Le Mystère Des Voix Bulgares, first released in 1975 and then rereleased in 1986 on the 4AD label, whose stable of bands such as the Cocteau Twins and Dead Can Dance seemed to have a numinous bond with ancient Balkan sounds. Bush did not want to fetishize further, did not want a collaboration to fail. After her resolve took over, she telephoned folk-music producer Joe Boyd, who had been working with Trio Bulgarka as part of the Bulgarian folk-music supergroup Balkana. Boyd and Bush made plans to meet Trio Bulgarka in Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia, for the weekend. Though Trio Bulgarka appear elsewhere on The Sensual World, it is “Deeper Understanding,” that song about a human connecting with something not-here, not-them, machine-but-beyond-machine—that song about someone being killed by love—that is the probable reason why Bush, a nervous and infrequent traveller, made the pilgrimage to Sofia in the first place. As Bush told Melody Maker in 1989: “When I was working on ‘Deeper Understanding,’ the idea was that the verses were the person and the choruses were the computer talking to the person. I wanted this sound that would almost be like the voice of angels: something very ethereal, something deeply religious, rather than a mechanical thing. And we went through so many different processes, trying vocoders, lots of ways of affecting the voice, and eventually it led to the Trio Bulgarka.” A year earlier, in the NME, Len Brown found Bush and Trio Bulgarka a week or so after the Sofia visit in a “broom cupboard” of a studio in Islington, London, aptly named Angel Recording Studios. The reclusive, private Bush was unprecedentedly letting the BBC film parts of the recording process for a TV program entitled Rhythms of the World. Bush told Brown: “I wrote a track with a choir-synthesiser sound hoping that if we could get to work with them, they would take the weight of the song from the synthesisers.” Later in the piece Bush describes the “emotions” that are “translated” to a non–Bulgarian speaking listener as “very deep information."  Bush’s wish for the Trio to “take the weight of the song from the synthesizers” puts them in superficial counterpoint to the Fairlight. This is an untidy division. Bush would indeed see the Trio and the folk culture they represented as a useful tool, a novel means by which to relate and create, to extend expression. She was not the only one.  Bulgarian singing has been understood by many non-Balkans through superlatives such as “emotional,” “ethereal,” “mystical,” “haunting,” “atmospheric.” Many Western musicians have identified the music’s effect as sublimely strong, an alien force, a salutary drug. George Harrison once gave Yanka Rupkina one of his records with an ardent, personalized dedication: “To one of the greatest singers on the planet.” On a 1980s radio show, Harrison said: “This is the kind of music that never reaches a lot of people because no one would ever play it but at the same time I think we’d be a much better world if everyone was forced to listen to it.” It is distinctive of the Balkan region in that it is sung in unusual (to Western ears) harmonic intervals, in the diaphonic style. One or more singers hold a single note, while the lead singer takes on a melody that frequently mixes dissonantly with the base note. As singers both amateur and professional know, holding a note strongly, steadily and in tune while another sings on top (dissonantly or not) takes both technical prowess and strength of will. That Bulgarian singers tend to sing from an open, engaged throat rather than the diaphragm, and that Bulgarian vocal songs, with breath control in mind, can stop abruptly and perfectly for a few seconds only to start again in booming pitch, make the music seem as bionic as it does “earthy.” Singing broke the ice on the Trio’s first meeting with Bush and Boyd in Sofia, during which there were significant communication barriers apart from the spoken word. (A Western “yes” headshake means “no” in Bulgaria, and vice-versa, cutely relevant in the context of “oooo yes.”) Although the Trio brought Bush to tears as they sang, there was exacting work to be done. It was a kind of interfacing. Eva began by picking up the telephone to get her base note from the dial tone. Bush later told the BBC: “If you’re in the same room as [the Trio] when they’re singing, you can hear the air cracking…there’s so much harmonic information in their voices.” Borimira Nedeva, a composer, musicologist and translator who worked as a facilitator during The Sensual World’s Bulgarka sessions, felt “like a live electric wire, high-voltage currents running back and forth. I had to shoot words back and forth and see how they react and try to see what's good and try to promote it.” Echoing comments made by male session musicians about Kate and the Fairlight, Nedeva confessed: “Sometimes Kate didn't know what she wanted."  Unlike the Fairlight however, the Trio could not be stuck in a windowless studio to be tinkered with indefinitely. Bush had to work fast in Sofia on rudimentary arrangements and compositions, aided by Bulgarian arrangers Dimitur Penev and Rumyana Tzintzarska, and then shortly afterwards in London, where long studio sessions were nonetheless markedly finite. Trio Bulgarka were accompanied to London by an “official translator,” for instance, who was really there to ensure the women didn’t defect from their communist home country. Bush would tell the NME of the “totally emotional” way she communicated with Trio Bulgarka. Like the mail-ordered program in “Deeper Understanding,” the Trio offered something exceptionally, uniquely intimate. “We can't talk intellectually,” said Bush to Brown. “We can't talk about the state of Bulgaria or even what the shops are like in London. It’s an incredible experience, the warmth they give you—you don't often get it from Westerners. Here it’s very much a communication of ‘I have this, you don't have that’ or ‘I don't have that and you do,’ whereas they want to know what kind of person you are. You can feel them probing your heart.” In Melody Maker, Bush enthused that the Trio would “just come up and touch you and cuddle you, and you can go up and give them a big cuddle.” In a 1989 interview for WFNX radio in Boston, Bush again extols the cuddles, adding, “They’re like my sisters now, I now have three sisters.” In her book Performing Democracy, Donna A. Buchanan, a University of Chicago specialist in music from Bulgaria, the Balkans, Russia and the Caucasus, writes a chapter on the Bush-Bulgarka collaboration. Buchanan mentions in a footnote that she “was unable to locate the original arrangements from which the Trio sings excerpts” on any of the three songs on which they appear on The Sensual World. “Just what the Trio was actually singing about was beside the point,” Buchanan writes of “Deeper Understanding.” “The texts were, in this piece, virtually undecipherable and the original sources unacknowledged.” Irene Markoff, ethnomusicologist, instrumentalist, singer and professor at Toronto’s York University, tells me over email that she, likewise, could not discern any specific Bulgarian lines in “Deeper Understanding.” “The lyrics in Bulgarian music are associated with the category/context of the songs,” Markoff writes, identifying categories that loosely confirm Bush’s attempt in “Deeper Understanding” to evoke something “primeval” (to use a qualified adjective of Buchanan’s). There are the rituals of the calendar, Christmas, Easter and other pagan-inflected seasonal observances, work songs, and table songs (sung while drinking or eating); and there are the life-cycle rituals, from birth to engagement and wedding, to death. Weeks after The Sensual World was released, the Berlin Wall fell. The day after, longtime Bulgarian President Todor Zhivkov was deposed. According to Buchanan, selections from The Sensual World were aired on Radio Sofia and Bulgarian national television on November 26, 1989, and March 3, 1990, respectively, the latter marking Liberation Day from Turkish rule, and in 1990 having, of course, double resonance.  The notion that Bulgarian singing and folk culture in general represent resistance to oppression is not unusual in interpretations of the genre. Graeme Thomson quotes Nedeva as saying the Bulgarians under Ottoman rule “made nests of culture that couldn’t be reached, and they preserved language, [identity], songs. It was absolutely isolated for 500 years, and these songs are sung in [that] old style.” In stressing Trio Bulgarka’s angelic casting in “Deeper Understanding,” Bush positioned Bulgarian music as a salve for trauma: “And Bulgaria, the suffering that those people have gone through is tremendous… They were absolutely tortured, really, by the Turks. And I think the music reflects tremendous suffering. And comfort in music through suffering. Which I think is not unusual, that places in the world where people have a very, very hard time, normally the music is exquisite. Music is one of those few things that in very hard times people can hang on to. It can help people.” Under Zhivkov, an insidious anti-Turkish campaign unfolded in Bulgaria, to which folk musicians like Trio Bulgarka were not entirely divorced. From the early 1970s, Pomak and Turkish names were “bulgarized” and by the 1980s, the Turkish language was forbidden in public places, with mosques being shut, and eventually over a thousand Turks being sent to labour camps or resettled. This state project, with the Orwellian name of Vuzroditelskiyat Protses in Bulgarian (alternately translated as “Revival Process,” “Process of Rebirth” or “Regeneration Process”) involved the writing of new Bulgarian history books erasing Turkish presence, and an assembled team of academics whose own dubious experiment was to prove that Bulgarian Turks had always been Bulgarian, and had been forced to convert to Islam. By 1989 Turkey had opened its borders expressly to Bulgarian Turks, with hundreds of thousands emigrating between May and August of that year. Meanwhile, so-called traditional music and dance were being deployed in Bulgaria to reinforce and proclaim the communist regime. Since the Ottoman Empire focussed on colonizing towns and cities in Bulgaria, regional music represented by groups like Trio Bulgarka came, after liberation, to signify endurance of Bulgarian culture. In his book Music in Bulgaria, ethnomusicologist Timothy Rice notes that what had been “a communal and community activity” of dancing and singing in rural areas of Bulgaria became “a performing art with a sharp split between performers and audience,” morphing into “a symbol of the Communist Party, the nation, and submission to Soviet domination in cultural, political, and economic matters.” Recording stars like Trio Bulgarka were part of this cultivation. Under communism, Rice argues, Bulgarian folk music and dance were not just separated from the church and from its context in rural ritual, but were slicked up and recontextualized as the voice of the commoner, with generous state sponsorship (alongside science, literature, education). Bulgarian folk music ironically became a means of touting something as new, as future facing—if not an invention, then a re-invention.  As a technology of the state, Bulgarian music and dance were freighted with contradiction. At once, notes Rice, they were a way for rural workers who moved to cities during communism to maintain a connection with their homes; but they also bore traces of the kind of poverty and class exploitation the communist state desired to erase. Communism made folk music new by, Rice argues, arranging it in the Western-classical sense, “adding chordal accompaniments and countermelodies to previously unaccompanied melodies; singing in choruses instead of solos or duets; playing in orchestras rather than solo or in small bands; dressing up in old-fashioned costumes for performances; and creating performance situations with a sharp split between the active performers and their passive audience.” As Bush herself demonstrated with her Trio Bulgarka collaboration, business was booming in Bulgaria for a variety of innovative arrangers of folk culture.  The Bulgarian government invited Phillip Koutev, a classical composer, to put together the State Ensemble of Folk Song and Dance, modeled after similar outfits in the Soviet Union. Auditions were held for singers and dancers. What had been part of daily rural life became something like a reality-television contest, in which the lucky, talented few would be “discovered” and perform for the state, nationally and internationally. (Travel abroad was rare during the communist era.) It was this Ensemble of Koutev’s that appeared on a 1965 compilation album released by the US label Nonesuch that essentially introduced Bulgarian music to the West, to the likes of George Harrison, Paddy Bush and, ultimately, Kate Bush. Trio Bulgarka contributed to the aforementioned, highly performative Bulgarian State Radio and Television Female Vocal Choir before collaborating with Bush. Their contemporary, Valya Balkanska, part of the Rodopa State Ensemble for Folk Songs and Dances, also left Bulgaria for professional purposes, but traveled even farther than they. In 1977 Balkanska’s voice, singing a late-17th-century ode to a rebel leader, “Izlel je Delyo hajdutin” (“Delyo has become hajduk”), went into outer space on the Voyager Golden Record, a 12-inch phonograph record made of gold-plated copper, carried on the probes Voyager 1 (currently the human-made object farthest from earth) and Voyager 2, with a playlist, also including Watlington’s and Payne’s whale songs, selected by a committee chaired by author and cosmologist Carl Sagan. The record, on which Balkanska is one of the few female musicians, is intended to “communicate a story of our world to extraterrestrials,” according to NASA. Former US president Jimmy Carter’s dedication to the aliens: “This is a present from a small, distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours.” *** During her twelve-year hiatus between The Red Shoes and Aerial, Kate Bush appeared on the Prince song “My Computer.” She sings backup, though you wouldn’t know it if not for the credits. Bush’s voice, heavily processed, could be mistaken for a multi-tracked Prince, or a simulation. Bush had already collaborated with Prince on “Why Should I Love You?” from The Red Shoes, a song that contains the lyrics, “The ‘L’ of the lips are open / To the ‘O’ of the host / The ‘V’ of the velvet / The ‘E’ of my eye.” If Bush had tried to posture as Prince through this velvet (oral sex?) reference, “My Computer” is Prince’s effective update of “Deeper Understanding,” its concept identical but situated in the late 1990s, when being social with one’s PC was somewhat less stigmatized, somewhat more banal. Prince’s song begins with an AOL sample (“you’ve got mail”). Like “Deeper Understanding,” the song is written in the first person, yet Prince is clearly identified as its narrator. Prince presents a twofold case as to why, on a Sunday night, he has decided to “scan my computer looking 4 a site.” He’s disappointed with the people in his life (“I can count my friends with a peace sign: 1, 2”) and with the state of the world (“I have a child, I have a lot 2 explain”). Later in the song, Prince admits he’s “got no mail” (presumably the occasion for the song, making its introduction an unsurprising corporate lie). The song ends, not with angels or birds, but with another AOL sample (“goodbye”). There is no transcendence. In April 2011, Bush unveiled her own redux of “Deeper Understanding,” the first and only single from Director’s Cut, released a month later, which remixed and in some cases rerecorded songs or parts of songs from The Sensual World and The Red Shoes. (“Flower of the Mountain” allowed Bush to cast “The Sensual World” as it had been intended, its original lyrics finally endorsed by the Joyce estate, and so rerecorded, with Bush replacing her original “oooo yes” with the textually accurate if passionlessly pedantic “yes.”) In an interview with Pitchfork’s Ryan Dombal promoting Director’s Cut, Bush claimed to have “always been a big fan of analog.” The comment would be more shocking had Bush not released 2005’s Aerial, which contained almost entirely organic sounds. In Aerial’s final song, the conceit of which feels like the end of an ecstatic acid trip in the English countryside, Bush, now a mother, positions herself as the eponymous contraption, “up on the roof,” her body and mind the only technology she needs to tune into the sublime sounds of the universe she so blessedly inhabits.  When asked by Dombal about the initial reason for writing “Deeper Understanding” Bush says, “I was working with the Fairlight, which was the first sampling machine and was actually quite the computer, though I tended to only use it on the surface. So I was around all this technology, and the song was about this contradiction of technology bringing a person more love and humanity than their own contact with actual people. Perhaps it’s something that people can relate to more now because we all have computers in our own homes eating up our time.” Pointing to mobile phones, Bush adds, “everyone is too busy, including me.” Later she adds, “I love the sound of analog tape, but there’s so many things you can do with Pro Tools that would be incredibly difficult and very time-consuming with analog.” This, in response to Dombal’s question about the computer’s voice in the rerecorded “Deeper Understanding”: instead of her own voice, Bush revisited the song using the autotuned voice of her 12-year-old son Bertie. “I could use a truly computerized voice that would stand alone,” Bush says of the new “Deeper Understanding,” only offering that she used Bertie instead because the computer is “meant to be a very kindly presence.” In the Bush-directed video for the redone song, this is not exactly the case. The video itself represents the third version of “Deeper Understanding.” For if the rerecorded version adds Bush’s autotuned preteen son, tweaks lyrics subtly but significantly (“go execute” is gone), removes much of Trio Bulgarka and all of the final bird songs, and has an extended outro in which Bush scat-sings the original lyrics over a jamming harmonica while glitchy sounds interrupt as if the recording has digital indigestion, the video adds such a significant, confounding narrative to the original’s lyrics that it becomes its own thing entirely. The results are the revelation of a malfunction. The video stars character actor Robbie Coltrane (aka Harry Potter’s Hagrid), who plays the protagonist (now clearly gendered as male), coming home to his high-rise apartment from work, his tie loosened, his shirt slightly rumpled. He sits in front of what is definitely intended to be an iMac. He grabs a CD-ROM, the case of which has printed on it, in DS-Digital font, “VOICE CONSOLE: WHENEVER YOU NEED A FRIEND.” There is a pair of smiling red femme lips between title and subtitle. Coltrane puts the program in his iMac and it starts: “Welcome to video console, the only one who really understands you.” The red lips on the case begin to speak on his screen, reminiscent of the opening credits for The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Coltrane laughs (he is understood by the program) and also cries, put in a trance by this connection. His family barges in when Bush sings of his family intervening; they pull the plug on his computer. After they leave, Coltrane tries to fix the plug and it works: his beloved voice console is back, and she blows him a kiss, what looks like a red balloon full of water that meets his face, and pops. Then the program crashes and Coltrane can’t get it to work again. Then he is electrocuted through his efforts, passes out, sees a white light. Then he is on a Fellini-esque stage, holding a champagne glass and cheersing with friends and colleagues. Then the stage turns into his apartment, and everyone he’s ever known is there. Then his wife and children approach him and seem to want to offer love, but then everyone points at him and laughs, including a clown. Then, after they turn their backs and walk away, he chokes, and wakes up. Then a coloured ball of light comes out of his mouth and begins to behave like a moth; it might contain a surveillance camera. Then Coltrane tries to capture it but can’t, and it soon flies out his window. Then he follows it, wandering through the city streets. Then he sees cartoon red sine waves coming out of an apartment window and follows them, after the ball of light emerges from his mouth again. Then he breaks into the apartment, and inside is a glam-rock programmer-cum-hacker, played by comedian Noel Fielding: this is the person behind the lips. Then Coltrane kills Fielding. Then Coltrane approaches the computer with frenzied happiness, hoping to rekindle his relationship with the voice console.  There are a few ways this could end. The last shot of the “Deeper Understanding” video shows a screen with what appear to be masculine eyes, which probably belong to Noel Fielding, peering over the program’s red lips, which probably belong to Kate Bush. Special thanks to Irene Markoff, to the Kate Bush online archive Gaffaweb, and to The Kate Bush Fan Podcast for inspiration, research and thinking integral to this piece.
‘I Like My Values Better’: An Interview with Daniel M. Lavery

Talking to the author of Something That May Shock and Discredit You on the pressure put on trans memoirs, leaving the church, and the myth of an unblemished body to be defended.

Midway through Something That May Shock and Discredit You (Atria Books), his new memoir-in-essays, Daniel M. Lavery writes: “The really nice thing about imagining yourself as a wife of Henry VIII is that you got to deal with every single male authority figure imaginable all at once, because he was everybody’s god and pope and dad and husband and boss.” This book reckons with many different men as well, whether Arthurian knights, Detective Columbo, the Christian brothers of the Gospel, or the author himself—who put off transitioning for years, an authority figure looming over his own mind, until “I could no longer pretend I wanted nothing.” Lavery still lavishes baroque jokes, like his very earliest pieces at The Toast: one chapter lists “Titles from the On-the-Nose, Po-Faced Transmasculine Memoir I Am Trying Not to Write.” He invokes Byron and Sappho. The flights of language flutter as they shed weight; he describes “permitting collapse, abandoning resistance.” Shortly before the publication of Something That May Shock and Discredit You, Lavery’s father John Ortberg was suspended from the Bay Area evangelical church where he ministered. Lavery had reported a congregant’s confession of “obsessive sexual feelings about young children” to Pastor Ortberg, who encouraged that person to continue volunteering with minors. Horrified by this moral cowardice, he severed ties with his family of origin. Lavery rushed ahead the wedding to his fiancée Grace, an academic, and they moved across the country to Brooklyn. Forced to revise a long-finished book, in the most agonizing circumstances imaginable, he never lost his élan; one of the passages I cut from our conversation was about the sexiest film incarnation of the Joker (Jack Nicholson, naturally). At the beginning of Something That May Shock and Discredit You, Lavery reconsiders his childhood fascination with the Rapture: “Everyone will be reconciled through peace and pleasure who can possibly stand it.” Chris Randle: I was fascinated by how this book reworks the religious parables and language you grew up with. How did you decide to shape the text that way? Daniel M. Lavery: I thought about this a lot, because I've gotten a variation of this sentiment from most of the interviewers, but it's usually like: "There's a lot of religion in this book. So much." I think that's true, and it's something that surprised me, like, I set out thinking about what I wanted to do with Anne of Green Gables, what I wanted to do with Athena— [t.A.T.u.'s "All the Things She Said" starts blaring through Brooklyn lesbian bar Ginger’s, leaving both parties in awed silence] Wow, I'm so sorry. Let the record stand that I was just transported back to my family computer in the basement circa 2002, illegally torrenting this song. Yeah, I vividly remember hearing this song... there was an "alternative" midnight show on MuchMusic, the Canadian MTV, and I think they played this. That was where I heard "Deceptacon" for the first time. And t.A.T.u. did that MTV Awards thing where they took the stage with a thousand girls dressed up like Spice Girls, and then they all kissed. It was like the lesbian apocalypse. And I definitely watched it on TV in the basement. I'm so sorry [both laugh]. I'm truly sorry. I don't think I've heard this song in 10 years. The last time I heard this song was at a party in a basement, and I was rolling on ecstasy with my friend Mia, we were having feelings. Understandably. So, yeah, the religious stuff felt less deliberate and more like I had too much religion in my head, and any time I start to write about change and vocation and transformation and family relationships the Bible is just there. Even in the chapters that aren't, like, Paul and the Thessalonians, you still end up getting a fair amount of religious content, or Biblical quotations. I think that's because the first time I started thinking of myself as a person who shaped their own life I was incredibly religious, so when I went back and sought to reshape my life in a different way, the Bible was like, "Great, we'll be coming with you." There's also just a lot of—if you wanted to come up with a lot of lovely, poetic, affirming language about transition, you could do worse than the Bible [laughs]. You know, "This is my son in whom I am well pleased." "For all shall be changed and taken up in the blink of an eye." It's all there. I was struck by that G. K. Chesterton quote you use, even though he was a dreadful old reactionary: “In the fairy tale an incomprehensible happiness rests upon an incomprehensible condition. A box is opened, and all evils fly out. A word is forgotten, and cities perish. A lamp is lit, and love flies away. A flower is plucked, and human lives are forfeited. An apple is eaten, and the hope of God is gone… Such, it seemed, was the joy of man, either in elfland or on earth; the happiness depended on NOT DOING SOMETHING which you could at any moment do and which, very often, it was not obvious why you should not do.” Oh, absolutely! I grew up reading Chesterton and he's saying those things, and also fascinated by elves, in the way that a lot of old British reactionaries sometimes are, where they're like, "Oh, I'm so charmed by these creatures." There's also a recurring bitter joke in the book where you're making fun of people who're like—did you ever see those Crimethinc [sic] posters? It was this terrible anarchist group and they had these posters that showed, like, a boy wearing an apron. "Girls can be tough. Boys can be sensitive." Like, great, I knew that. But you still have to— And one thing that's just odd on a logistical level, aprons aren't sensitive. There's nothing sensitive about an apron. Aprons are not a representation of sensitivity. Give him a stuffed bear, or show him reading a romance novel. Sorry, I'm really hung up on that [both laugh]. One of many things I love about Miyazaki movies is that the rules of each fantasy world might seem absurd or nonsensical to the protagonist, but they're internally consistent, even in their own dream-logic way. And the moment of triumph is when that character figures out how to navigate them. I don't want to be like [patronizing nerd voice] "gender works the same way," but... Sure. And that Chesterton bit in Orthodoxy—first of all, it's from a book called Orthodoxy, that's never a great sign. A much more well-known quote from Orthodoxy is: "Joy, which was the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian." The whole bit about daisies gets very sentimental in a way that I don't vibe with. But I do like the way that he thinks about observing a different of rules in the world of the elves. I think it's also easy for people like me to forget or overlook how—I feel like American evangelicals have thought of themselves, at least up until recently, as being apart from the traditional mainline Protestant denominations. Very much so. I remember reading this old essay about Ian Paisley, the ultra-reactionary Ulster Protestant, who loved the really right-wing American evangelicals, and they loved him back. The Ulster Unionists are so nationalistic, so intense about being part of Britain, but my experience is that most people in the rest of Britain look down on them as these embarrassing, violent hicks, and that almost makes them perversely proud, you know? "We're more British than the British." Exactly. I can totally see that. And the other thing is—when I was still part of the church, our church regularly sent mission teams to Scandinavia, I think also the UK. No one would've avowed the white supremacism of that movement, but it was very much like: "Guys, we're losing Europe. Europe! The historical home of Christendom." Which it was not, there was a pretty big region that was the home of Christendom before that. But there was this panicked sense of: We're losing European Christians, and we've gotta get back in there and remind them how great this shit is. And if they dissolved these boring state churches, if they just had exciting evangelical churches, we could win them back. That's how I got to visit Denmark. I saw milk sitting out at room temperature for the first time, it was incredible, like, what kind of world is this. I had a great time. I was raised without any religion, I've only been to church for funerals or weddings, like, the big ones. And it means I don't have the trauma that often comes with a religious upbringing, but there's also this slightly sad knowledge of a pitch you'll never entirely hear. I am ultimately a materialist, but I really admire, like, Walter Benjamin, the people who try to be communist mystics. Do you know his whole "angel of history" passage? No! Benjamin described this angel blown backwards by the storm, who sees history unfolding behind it as an endless series of catastrophes. That's extremely metal. Yeah! It was inspired by this odd-looking Paul Klee painting, where the angel kinda looks like a floppy-haired boy band member... wait, I'll show you... Whoa. Okay, I love that. I love that. Sort of a Timothee Chalamet type. Um, so, there's a recurring theme of self-denial in the book, like: I'm painfully aware of this possibility, which means I know it couldn't possibly fit me... I was going to phrase that as an actual question, but then the bar started playing "Waterloo" and I thought of that scene from The Simpsons and lost my train of thought. Certainly it's not hard to look for self-denial in a religious upbringing. I think the way I experienced it was a sense of whether or not something was possible. It wasn't so much that I thought at that time, "There's a thing I want that I'm withholding from myself," because I don't deserve it or I shouldn't have it or whatever—more a sense of not knowing it was possible, for me in particular. So it wasn't like I had a conscious sense of denial; either I'm very, very good at self-denial, such that I didn't know I was doing it, or there was something else at play. But especially with an evangelical way of relating to the world, which I think can persist even after you stop going to church, it's not always easy to undo or untangle—you're constantly hunting for the next thing that's going to get you closer to God. It's like you seek out the things that will enhance that closeness, and you kind of don't worry about the other things, because if you're hunting that out enough then you're set, you're taken care of. Maybe it was a sense of keeping oneself busy. I think I associate self-denial with, like, Catholicism. The horniest denomination. Yeah. But the flipside of self-denial is the indulgence, and then the relief that comes with confession, there's a cycle there, whereas with evangelicalism you don't get too many of those moments. It's better not to know the things you might want. Better not think too carefully about that. At one point you mention your love of impressions, and a big chunk of the book sort of is one, these pastiches or channelings. I think you hint at this in the text, but why do those appeal to you? Some of it feels a little on-the-nose, like, "Because I could not truly be myself, I must be all these other people." And I'm okay being a little bit cheesy or obvious. But also, even at a really young age, I had an appetite for different kinds of experiences, and Midwestern evangelicalism doesn't necessarily encourage a whole lot of that [laughs], though one way in which it does is through daydreaming, imagination, impressions. That was an outlet that was quickly encouraged by the adults in my life. "Yeah, keep doing that, that's a ton of fun." When I look back, one of the various moments of gender euphoria that I experienced, for lack of a better phrase—when I was nine or ten, I started singing the Gilligan's Island theme song in the voice of Elvis, and all the adults in my life thought it was the funniest thing, to see this little nine-year-old girl singing in an Elvis voice. But I loved that moment, I loved the surprise... inhabiting somebody else's mannerisms felt very exciting, fun. You know how you always say you've got an impression in your back pocket? You start to think of it like an arsenal. "I've got these eight in my back pocket, and I've got these three in my other back pocket, they're not quite there yet. And somehow I'm going to use them all like a series of arias to storm a garrison, or flee a garrison." Before I could ask myself the question am I a boy?, I could ask myself the question: Am I Anne of Green Gables? Am I Elvis? Am I Christian from A Pilgrim's Progress? And you can ask yourself those questions kind of cheekily, which is nice. I also feel like that dovetails with another aspect of the book, which is your quest for a new form of language. Like, there's that passage where you turn these bromides about transition into a Joycean soliloquy, or the entire chapter made up of fake memoir chapters. A flight from cliché, I guess. Yeah. I think that was partly because I felt the desire for cliché rising in me so strongly, so it wasn't, "Everyone around me is saying this and I must put a stop to it" so much as, like, "Fuck I want to say this, and I know that if I do it might secure me in the short term what I think I want from somebody else, but it will also immediately result in a sense of failing to tell the truth about the one thing I really wanted to tell it about.” Which I think to a certain extent is just not possible, but it is also true that every time I lift weights I’m like, “I’m inventing this.” Lifting weights is now a different kind of activity, because I, the only living person in the world, and the only interesting person, have done it. I bring the power and the gayness of, like, Herman Melville, the brawn of millions of years of faggots, we’re all lifting together. You idiots were just picking up iron, but I, I danced. That is in me, I want to do that, and also as I hear myself say that I’m like, boy oh boy, you are being very silly right now, you need to stop being so silly. I know that we’ve talked about this before—I feel like over the past couple of years people have really been rebelling against the tragic/sentimental modes imposed on trans memoir, imposed on any kind of autobiographical writing, really. Do you think there’s a distinctively transmasculine form of comic writing? Grace and I have talked about this, one of the problems is—every trans memoir has to say this one is different from the other trans memoirs, so even in the act of saying “this one’s different” you’re doing the same thing everyone else has ever done. I would say rather that it’s a genre that requires a justification of the tweaks you’re making, each time someone produces a new one. I don’t think it’s anything I’m doing that’s new, I just think I’m doing the same thing in my own way, if that makes sense. I think of it like the conversion narrative, like Paul and the Epistles, there’s a lot that the classic conversion narratives of the early church have in common with the transition narrative, like telling a story. “Here’s what it was like, here’s what happened, here’s what it’s like now.” But yeah, I at least among my transmasculine friends have noticed a lot of comedy, and I think I’ve benefited from it, because those jokes we make among one another have influenced my writing a lot. I’ve always loved Calvin Kasulke’s work, Julian Jarboe’s work, and we’re constantly texting each other stupid ideas about, like, the horse-girl-to-trans-guy transition pipeline. That was one of the things that took me aback the most reading Lou Sullivan’s diaries, how they could’ve been written yesterday, especially in terms of the humour. Especially that relationship to, like: I just saw some boys on TV, and I want to protect them. I wish we were all best friends, and I will save them from the world. That response to some regular-ass guys just playing music on TV, and imbuing them with such depth of emotional intensity they could not possibly have, and swearing “I will protect them,” that’s a very particular flavour of transmasculine energy that I both resonate with and find so embarrassing. Treating the most anodyne straight guys like you are Sam Gamgee and they are Frodo. There are figures of male identification in this book, but they’re definitely not boy-band types. It’s, like, Peter Falk, or rather Columbo, which might not be the same as Peter Falk. And “William Shatner,” which you distinguish from William Shatner the actual human being. Who’s a very mean old person. Yeah, I had a boy band phase when I was in the fifth and sixth grade, but it was in the fifth and sixth grade and it was a phase. I have had a lot of other powerful points of connection, like, old character actors, or moments of grizzledness, certain kinds of intensity. I mean, I’m always going to be a sucker for an impossibly beautiful man of 24 who’s like, “I’ve never had acne in my life, I dance effortlessly and gracefully.” Obviously there’s an appeal there that a lot of different demographics can unite on and say, "This is nice." But yes, boy band masculinity is not for me, I think. You write so well about the gentleness of Columbo, or William Shatner's soft hips. He had wonderfully soft hips and they were so mean and they put him in so many girdles. Relatable, though. By the way, I don't know if you've ever seen this, it didn't make it into the book, but I did write about it later in my newsletter—the very last episode to air of the original Star Trek series, "Turnabout Intruder," is basically autoandrophilia. A former girlfriend of Kirk's is furious and bitter, because of sexism, which drives her insane. She loves and hates him, she loves and hates herself, and she takes over his body for the episode, she tries to kill him in her body. I had this great screenshot that was like, "She has delusions of being Captain Kirk," and just wrote, "Same." It's a very upsetting episode, and it's surprising that it's the last episode of the series, because it's so odd. It's incredibly sexist. It's also weirdly that autoandrophilic sexual fantasy, so it's kind of hot. And then it's sexist again. Just... jarring. I was thinking about that whole forced-masc fantasy the other day, as one does, and it's an interesting contrast with the forced-feminization stuff that's all like, you are a dumb bimbo with no agency. The forced-masc material scrambles dominance and submission in such a funny way. "Oh, you want to clean my gutters, Dad?" [laughs] Well, yeah, obviously there's a degree to which I hope I can be the scholar of forced-masculinization fantasies. If all my work resulted in slightly increased public awareness of the eroticization of transmasculinity, I'll be happy, just because it does away with the old story of the plucky heroine who only binds her breasts out of convenience. And she passes as a boy to defeat sexism, but she's getting nothing out of it! She doesn't even like sex! In Georgette Heyer or Daphne du Maurier or any of those quote-unquote crossdressing fantasies, it's incredibly charged. And so much of the fantasy is about sexual fulfillment through desexualization: "I want you to treat me like a boy. Don't treat me like a girl, but stop treating me like a boy. When you treat me like a boy I feel sexless and humiliated, but when I feel sexless and humiliated I feel thrilled and special. Now we're in trouble." Part of what I remember at a very formative age is, if you're a slightly fluffy-seeming girl-child, they hand you a lot of books, and they hand you a lot of books where a girl disguises herself as a boy. And there's always a fraught older-brother-relationship with some guy who's always like: "You're shit at being a guy. Who the fuck's going to teach you how to do this right, you piece of shit?" Oh my god, they're finally treating me like a boy, I'm being ground underneath someone's heel. I'm nothing, I'm nobody, I'm interchangeable, I'm a block of sand, but also like, yes, spit on me, make me shine your shoes. Let's ride off together on a fucking horse. There's not much to say except there's a lot of it, it's super erotic, and dressing like a boy to get boys' attention is great and everyone should do it. Have you ever seen the Claire Denis film Beau Travail? No! It's her adaptation of Billy Budd, set amidst the French Foreign Legion, and the main character is played by Denis Lavant, who's this kind of goblin-looking character actor. Definitely jolie laide. And the ending, he's lying around shirtless holding a gun and flexing his muscles on his bed. Then there's a jump cut, suddenly he's standing alone in this nightclub, the '90s Eurodance anthem "Rhythm of the Night" comes on, and he increasingly madly tries to maintain his composure dancing to the song. That's what all the forced-masc stuff reminds me of. Really it goes back to Shakespeare, like, "Why am I beguiled by this creature?" ... How do you think about Something That May Shock and Discredit You in relation to the last book? Do you think it anticipated this one? In some ways I feel like this book is more connected to the first one [Texts from Jane Eyre], or it's more of a revisiting of the first one, but pushing further than that book left off. The second book [The Merry Spinster] felt very much in-between. "I don't want to talk about anything directly right now, I don't want to talk about anything representational right now, let's see what happens." It was just a really strange time. I essentially came out because the book was coming out, I was on hormones, and I was really upset about the thought of going on tour and being asked, like, "Do you have a cold?" It felt like I had to make a calculation at that point, and I didn't think I'd be able to pull it off and maintain my composure if somebody was like, "Hey, your skin looks weird." I often associate that book with—I don't revisit it often. I don't go back and pick it up again. But certainly in terms of an arc, to go from The Merry Spinster to the guy [Lord Byron] on the front of this cover—I love it, he's so histrionic, like he's trying to tear his own skin off. He's like: "Auggghhh, I'm going to be 37, shocked and discredited." That actually made me want to ask, why did you choose to honour Lionel Hutz with your title? Lionel Hutz is a pivotal figure. He's a person who only ever falls apart. Right. I think I texted you a while ago, I really identify with how he's blithely confident yet constantly panicking. And it's the only moment in his onscreen appearances where something works for a minute. He actually pulls it off, he successfully manages to convince everyone that he was never wearing a tie. That's his one moment of glory, he's finally able to pull off a lie. I was thinking a lot at the time about physical stress, fraudulence, being exposed as a fraud. I wish you could convey that my tone of voice is a little silly right now [laughs], but that felt like the title immediately, like, obviously we're doing this. Also, I just want to acknowledge that they [Ginger's] have been playing the most baffling mix, and I adore it. This is Shania Twain's weird comeback song. It might be the jukebox, but I don't think people are playing music off that? I think it's a mix, it's gotta be a mix. And I think that mix is going into Spotify and taking, like, gay bar music. I love that whole chapter about so-called "rapid onset gender dysphoria." The "ROGD" makes me think of frogs whenever I see it. It's such a goofy concept! There's a passage where you write: "Any mention of someone's transitioning body sends them into direct and panicked conflict with the prospect of their own transitioning body." You talk about that horror of the flesh. And these people, they so often cite David Cronenberg to express their disgust with any form of medical transition, but they don't get the ambivalence in his movies. Like, if you've seen Videodrome and you think he's suggesting this is very very bad, couldn't possibly be some sort of glorious apotheosis... I love that this is like, "I accuse them of not getting Cronenberg!" [laughter] It's like you're telling them: "You know what else is irreversible? Existing in a human body at all."  Yeah. And to be clear, I'm not claiming they secretly want to transition or something, but yeah, that idea of—I'm sure if you understood transition as something you were tricked into, or that was forced upon you, I can understand why you would view that with horror. If you pay careful attention to the fact that, when people tell you, "I want this very very much, I'm not horrified," and insist that their consent must somehow be compromised... that is silly, and not the kind of silliness I have interest in. The idea that there's some perfect, invulnerable, unblemished body that must be defended and protected at all costs... it's very odd. It's not a perspective that I really understand. And I think it's not an accident that so much of the public anti-trans conversation over the last couple of years has moved to kids, because it's such an easy way to deny people a voice. It's like: "Well, we don't seem to be getting as far as we used to just calling you freaks and monsters." It's so frustrating to come out at 31 and hear: "But what about teenagers?" I don't fucking know any teenagers! Obviously I want trans kids to be able to talk about themselves, but this was literally in conversation with me, and I was like: "I don't know any trans teenagers, and you don't know any either. You know one trans person, and it's me, and I'm in my thirties. I don't know why you're suddenly obsessed with fictional 15-year-olds who might get top surgery. But you're not their relative, you're not their friend, don't worry about them. Let's talk about me." This phantom crew of children being thrown into a top surgery pipeline. Or the focus on an imagined future regret, as if there's any life decision you couldn't potentially regret. Yeah, the idea that the best thing to do in life is imagine future regrets you might have, and then only act in such a way as to avoid them. Absolutely you could sit here and eat crackers until you die. You could 100 percent do that, but it sounds boring as shit.  That's kind of what you're working through across this book. The hedging. Yeah. "How can I not want this thing that I want?" And for me the main shift, the most important shift, was: How do I live my life in such a way that when regret comes I can deal with it appropriately, work through it, find interesting ways to incorporate it in my life? Rather than, "Oh no no, this is the one thing that I must avoid at all costs." Once I was no longer thinking that the worst thing that could happen was me making a decision and later coming to regret it—the real worst thing that could happen is never finding out what I want, never doing anything that pleases me, because I'm so afraid of the possibility of future sadness.  There's this Wittgenstein line that I think about a lot: "If a lion could speak, we would not understand him." Because the lion's frame of reference is so remote and alien from your own, even if he were using the same language mechanically. It almost seems like you had the inverse problem, like, such awareness of and familiarity with the language of transition, people who had transitioned, that it was overwhelming. Yeah, I think so. Yeah. Sorry, I don't have a lot of extra thoughts about that [laughs]. What is your writing process like? Do you and Grace read each other's work? Grace is actually working on a book right now, and she's been showing me each chapter as she goes along. I tend to treat it much more like I'm a vulture and this is my precious, precious carcass. I tend to really hunker over my stuff and not show it until I've completed the first draft, but that's not always the case. And I have a couple of friends here in the city who I like to show my writing to when I can. But the process is kind of classically, you know, wait until the deadline approaches and then write it all as fast as you can. And I've been able to tinker with that over the years, such that I give myself lots and lots of little deadlines, so I'm always turning something in. I should get one of those ergonomic keyboards, probably, I'm always writing in bed. I should take care of my hands and spine. I guess I should also ask about you having to rewrite the book just as it was coming out... I can't even think of any parallel for that. How did it feel? Challenging, for sure. It was the sort of thing where luckily it wasn't most of the book, like it was just really one chapter and then a couple of different moments. But it was very much that something I believed to be true was not true. I was able to see wishful thinking in places where I previously hadn't, and it felt immediately clear to me that I would not be able to stand by any of the things I had written about my family of origin. So I had to change it a couple weeks out from going to press, I'd never made changes to a book that late in my life. My agent and my editor were both incredibly helpful. I hope I never have to do that again! It was very stressful. I was not able to do a lot in the way of rewriting, I did it over two afternoons, it was a total blur. I know that it happened because I have the emails, but I barely remember those days. And I'm really glad that I was able to, I cannot imagine having to tour on the strength of a book that I felt like I had to partially disavow. I have an older advance copy, and I just remember, I think it's the very last chapter, where you said something like, "My father is a very disciplined person." That's why they say "don't quote from advance copies"! Because changes might occur to the manuscript [laughs]. Do you feel like your relationship with religion has changed because of all this? Yeah. I think I have felt at last the freedom to acknowledge that I am not a religious person, as opposed to feeling like I had to equivocate or leave open a certain possibility, because to foreclose that possibility would be to... it's funny, because I had sort of stopped being a religious person in college, but the difference between really committing to that rupture and seeing it all the way through, versus walking some of it back a little bit, just enough around the edges that Christmas is fun... And I feel like I no longer need to defer to the idea that, "Well, whatever we believe, at least we can all agree that we have the same values." We don't have the same values. I like my values better. I don't share them, they're not mine, that's not who I am. I have lots of thoughts and memories and ideas about my particular brand of Christianity that I was raised in, but I'm no longer chasing that dream of being a very good transsexual who's just spiritual enough that Mom and Dad and the Church are finally going to say it's okay to be gay or trans. They're never going to say it, there was no amount of good I could have been, and it's a relief to no longer have to pretend.
The Poetic Embassy

What happened when four poets from Franco’s Spain took their show on the road.

In December 1949, the Franco regime sent four Spanish poets to Latin America as emissaries of what it called a “poetic embassy.” Their mandate was to share their work, the literary fruit of Spain’s National Catholicism, with their Spanish-speaking brethren on the other of the side of the Atlantic. The four poets saw their trip as good-hearted cultural diplomacy, a handshake across an ocean, while the many detractors they would encounter during four eventful months abroad saw only the invasive political propaganda of a foreign dictatorship. The success of the trip, much like a poem, was also open to interpretation. A poet who declined at the last minute to participate in the trip later called it a “rotund failure,” while the regime would spin it as a triumph, in spite of the fact that it ended abruptly because of a political assassination. And yet it was another assassination, carried out more than a decade earlier in dramatically different circumstances, that truly defined the trip—the murder of the poet Federico García Lorca. *** While all four poets came from the victorious Nationalist side of the Spanish Civil War, they weren’t a political monolith. In fact, they were a good reflection of the varied right-wing coalition that had united to defeat the Second Republic, a grab-bag that had included everything from die-hard fascists, to wealthy aristocrats, to Catholic traditionalists. The oldest member of the “embassy” was forty-three-year-old Count Agustín de Foxá, an aristocratic bon vivant and the author of Madrid de Corta a Checa, a novel about a young man’s conversion from right to left during the war. A diplomat posted in Argentina, he was also the biting wit of his generation, known for his celebrated mot, “I’m a count, I’m fat, I smoke cigars, how am I not going to be a right-winger?” Foxá’s complacent, privileged conservatism contrasted with the earnest fascism of thirty-three-year-old Antonio Zubiaurre, a poet and editor who had fought in Russia alongside Nazis during World War II as part of the Blue Division of volunteer soldiers Franco had sent to fight Stalin. Then there was Leopoldo Panero, forty, who had been a communist poet before the outbreak of the war, and friends with such leftist poets as Pablo Neruda and Miguel Hernández. After being imprisoned and narrowly escaping execution by the uprising, he enlisted in Franco’s army as a soldier in order to survive, only to end up being seduced by the mystique of the Falange, Spain’s fascist party. When the trip to Latin America came together, he had just published his first full-length book of poetry, an earthy paean to traditional Spanish values such as god and family. Lastly, there was Luis Rosales, Leopoldo Panero’s best friend since the early 1930s, whose life had also been reshaped by the war. Rosales came from a conservative family; he had joined the uprising from its beginning. Yet in spite of their political differences, Federico García Lorca had been his poetic mentor and friend from long before the outbreak of the war. They were both from Granada, and when rumors began stirring in the city in August 1936 that certain local adherents to the rebellion had it out for Lorca, the Rosales family sheltered the poet. This secret soon got out—allegedly one of Rosales’s brothers informed members of the local rebellion—and made its way to just the wrong person: a vengeful would-be politician named Ramón Ruiz Alonso, who hoped that by erasing Lorca he could buoy himself to higher status in the Falange. With a force of nearly one hundred soldiers, he surrounded the Rosales home and demanded Lorca come out from hiding. The poet was hauled away to jail, only to then vanish. Luis Rosales protested at the military headquarters in Granada, causing a commotion that nearly put his own life in danger. He was sent to the north for the remainder of the war, where he edited a fascist literary magazine and oversaw other literary propaganda. Lorca’s death would leave an indelible mark on Rosales, as it would on the trip to Latin America with his three fellow poets. But before anything else, the men had to leave Spain, which was easier said than done. *** On the morning of December 6th, 1949, the freighter Habana of the Transatlantic Company was preparing to voyage across the Atlantic. But there was a problem. The ship was leaving at mid-day and Leopoldo Panero was nowhere to be found. After setting off a few days earlier from Tarragona, in Catalonia, the Habana had docked in the city of Cadiz, on the southern coast of Spain. Panero and Rosales, taking advantage of this stopover, met up with a group of old friends and launched a bender of epic proportions in nearby Jerez (a city famous for its sherry), drinking themselves from lunch one day until morning the next. Along for the ride was José Caballero Bonald, a twenty-three-year-old aspiring local poet, who had felt a sense of privileged awe the day before when he had been invited to join. Now, with the freighter threatening to unmoor and leave Panero behind, he was part of the search party. Fifty years later, he would recall the crisis and its denouement in his memoirs: After fruitless inquiries, the conclusion was arrived at that possibly he had been held up in a brothel where we had landed late into the night. And there he was, in effect, not in any bed nor in a presumable state of intoxication, but given over to the painstaking delight of a bath. The scene had something of the burlesque to it. Submerged in a washtub, with water up to his waist, Panero remained in a state of ecstasy while two girls of the house judiciously lathered him. When he saw us burst into the bordello—which enjoyed, as wasn’t rare at this time, a certain domestic simulacrum—he raised a stink and refused to leave that place where he was so richly taking pleasure. Rosales finally convinced Panero to get dressed and they raced back to the port just as the crew was preparing to retract the gangplank. Caballero Bonald, who didn’t get a chance to say goodbye, watched the men go, disillusioned by what he had seen. “My naïveté resisted admitting that those two famed poets were just simple mortals entangled in the most ordinary mess.” The Habana steamed off toward its namesake port across the ocean, in Cuba. *** The trip had come about thanks to Panero and Zubiaurre’s former boss at a Francoist thinktank, who was now the Spanish ambassador to Peru. He had convinced the General Directorate of Cultural Relations in Madrid to pony up the money for the tour, which would last three months and include stops in over ten Latin American countries. What no one quite understood at the time was the unique and precarious inflection point in history the four Spaniards were traveling into. The Spanish Civil War had been an emotional, bitterly divisive event not just for Spaniards but for people around the world. It had also been the most literarily dramatized conflict in modern history. As Pablo Neruda would write in his memoirs, “In the history of the intellect there has not been a subject as fertile for poets as the Spanish war.” Ernest Hemingway published For Whom the Bell Tolls and W.H. Auden published Spain, just two of many works by non-Spanish writers that cemented the conflict in the global imagination. Meanwhile, the Spanish writers who managed to survive the war and its aftermath—which, along with Lorca, took the lives of the legendary poets Miguel Hernández and Antonio Machado—fled into exile, most landing in Latin America. Although the Spanish Civil War had ended over a decade ago, memories of its mythic narratives and the nearly half a million lives lost remained strong in the region, especially among leftist governments. Yet its legacy and that of World War II were, geopolitically speaking, giving way to the new rules of the emergent Cold War. The world’s democracies had ceased to position themselves in opposition to fascism, and instead to communism. Yet many communist governments were still fixated on enemies like the Franco dictatorship, since the United States’ heavy-handed interventionism in Latin America was still a few years away. The four hapless Spanish poets found themselves in the crosshairs of this transition. They knew how horrible their country’s civil war had been better than anyone abroad—they had all lost loved ones on both sides of the conflict—but they hoped to heal the wounds of the past through literature. This was especially true of Panero and Rosales, who weren’t Francoist fanatics so much as survivor opportunists. As Panero, a longtime admirer of Latin American poetry, wrote, “We were burning with purity, like a boyfriend who holds, for the first time, the hand of his girlfriend.” The four poets were unprepared for what awaited them. On December 16, the Habana made landfall in the New World—in Hoboken, New Jersey. They were both far from Spain and painfully close, especially Rosales. After the civil war, the Lorca family had emigrated to New York City, where the poet’s parents, brother, sister, and their families had made a new life for themselves. While the Rosales and Lorcas had been friendly in Granada, now the past divided them. The poets knew how close the Lorcas were as they wandered the Hoboken port, but they didn’t visit them—not yet. The poetic ambassadors arrived in Havana just before Christmas and stepped onto the quay. To welcome the Spanish visitors, the leftist press rained down colorful insults: crooked hacks, typists of the Falange, trained amanuenses of Francoist propaganda. At the same time, a handful of prominent Cuban writers came to their defense, such as Dulce María Loynaz. At the dawn of the 1950s, Cuba was whipping left and right. The Soviet Union had opened an embassy in the country in 1943, while American-owned companies invested heavily in the small yet lucrative Caribbean island. Meanwhile, the characters who would unleash the Cuban Revolution a decade later were already converging. In 1948, a twenty-one-year-old Fidel Castro had been in Bogota, Colombia, when the liberal presidential candidate was assassinated, setting off riots in which he participated. That same year, Cubans elected Carlos Príos Sacarrás president, the man dictator Fulgencio Batista would overthrow four years later, who ruled until Fidel Castro in turn overthrew him. [[{"fid":"6706521","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"}}]] Agustin de Foxa, the daugher of a Spanish diplomat, and Leopoldo Panero at the Mayan Ruins of Copán in Honduras. On Christmas day, the four poets gave their first reading at a civic organization in Havana. Yuletide warmth did not envelope them. Their verses were met by antagonistic whistles from the crowd, followed by airborne eggs. Panero narrowly dodged the ones that came flying his way, only to watch them explode next to him against the Spanish and Haitian ambassadors. Foxá wrote to his mother about the incident, “Communists tried to interrupt…but they were detained and beaten, mainly by Spanish priests and friars, who acquitted themselves heroically.” The crashers of the event were protesting against writers from a fascist dictatorship coming to their island to share their work, but they were especially after one person: Luis Rosales. All throughout Latin America, rumors abounded that, rather than trying to save Lorca, Rosales had been the Brutus to Lorca’s Caesar. As one Cuban newspaper had reported in anticipation of the poets’ arrival as they were still crossing the Atlantic: “Luis Rosales, the ringleader of the mission, was the traitor that deceived the good faith of García Lorca so that he would hide in his home in Granada, from which he took him days later to turn him into the firing squad.” According to Rosales’s son—also named Luis—in the face of these attacks both written and airborne, the poet sent a message through the Spanish embassy in Havana to Lorca’s father, Federico García Rodríguez, asking him to write a letter vouching for his innocence in Lorca’s death. Allegedly, Lorca’s father obliged, though after giving the letter to the Cuban press, Rosales would discover that he should have requested a letter for nearly every country they visited. Despite the contretemps that marred the poets’ first public appearance, they triumphed in other, more receptive venues in Cuba. Before the end of December, their itinerary pushed them onward. The group split in two to cover more ground. Zubiaurre and Foxá went to the Dominican Republic, while Panero and Rosales traveled to Puerto Rico, where they rang in 1950. On New Year’s Day, Panero sent a letter to Rosales’s wife back in Spain that began, “Don’t be afraid.” He wasn’t just offering empty comfort. Puerto Rico was more welcoming than Cuba, as was their next stop, the Dominican Republic, where the four poets reunited. They read to large audiences. While in the Dominican Republic, the men met with Cipriano Rivas Cherif, a Spanish playwright who had been a diplomat for the Republic, only to spend years in Franco’s prisons after the war and narrowly avoid a death sentence. War had once defined them as enemies, but it didn’t prevent this reunion, a nuance of the civil war’s legacy the protesters against the four poets likely didn’t grasp. Both exiles and people who stayed in Spain had lost so much, yet many still retained affection, or at least openness, toward people who had ended up on the opposing side. Now it was as if a familial bond from the lost paradise of the pre-war years transcended divisions, allowing former enemies to fleetingly act like friends again. But such nostalgic encounters were brief. From the Caribbean, the poets continued on to Venezuela. Like Cuba, Venezuela proved a touchy destination. The year before, a military coup had upended three years of democracy and installed a dictatorship. A dissident movement remained in the country, however, and activists showed up at the poets’ reading in Caracas the second week of January. The Spaniards knew there would be demonstrators but were reassured that things would be kept under control. They weren’t. As soon as the event commenced, someone cut the power to the building. In the dark, eggs and tomatoes splattered around them. Gunshots rang out. The poets rushed off the stage. As in Cuba, the primary target was Rosales, who, as Zubiaurre later recalled, “felt intimately hurt.” After they had escaped the melee, Foxá tried to make light of the near-riot with his customary sardonic banter: “We’re going to have to go around with a banner that says, ‘The killers of García Lorca greet their fans.’” Colombia, on the other hand, was an altogether different story. After the violence the previous year, the president had squashed his liberal opponents, and the climate that awaited the poets was enthusiastic. During twenty days, they packed in nonstop readings, with the press calling their tour “an unprecedented success.” The poets met with more Spanish exiles, including an ex-minister of the Republic, then moved north to Panama, where they read for an audience of two thousand. From there it was onto Costa Rica: ovations at one venue, eggs at another. (“They have a marked affinity for omelets,” Foxá quipped to his mother.) Next, Nicaragua, where the Somoza family ruled over the country. They were treated like visiting dignitaries everywhere they went. In spite of its inauspicious start in Cuba, the “poetic embassy” had turned into such a success in the end that the Directorate back in Madrid wanted to extend their itinerary. A Spanish diplomat, José Gallostra, was doing the tricky advance work sorting out their visas to visit in Mexico, which refused to recognize the Franco government. [[{"fid":"6706531","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"}}]] A poetry reading in the Dominican Republic. After returning to Havana, the four poets prepared to fly to Mexico. From there, they would continue on to the United States with new stops added in the American south. All the heat and travel and long days, though, was wearing on them. At some point, Panero and Zubiaurre, both known for their tempers, stopped talking to each other. In photos from the trip, the four Spaniards look haggard and under-showered. Then they received shocking news. The Spanish diplomat Gallostra, who was arranging their trip, had been murdered in broad daylight outside his office building in Mexico City. Two point-blank shots to the head “as midday crowds jammed the Paseo de la Reforma,” reported The New York Times. The assassin was a Spanish exile, anarchist, and former soldier for the now vanished Second Republic. The killing of Gallostra and the ensuing diplomatic debacle prompted the Spanish government to discreetly wind down the trip. In Mexico, the four poets quietly boarded the steamer Magllanes bound for New York City, their final stop before setting course for Spain.  *** “Extra human architecture and furious rhythm,” wrote Lorca of New York, where he briefly lived in his twenties, inspiring his famous book Poeta en Nueva York. “Geometry and anguish.” Indeed, it was a strange, painful geometrical alignment of politics and poetry that had brought the poets to New York, where they arranged to meet with members of the Lorca family, who still carried with them great anguish amid the skyscrapers and noise that filled the city. They had put an ocean between themselves and the homeland that had taken their son and other loved ones, but Spain now appeared in the form of three men who hadn’t been forced to leave like them: Panero, Zubiuarre, and Rosales. (Foxá had returned to his diplomatic posting.) They met at a café in mid-town Manhattan. According to Rosales and Zubiaurre, the reunion was warm and cordial. Federico Sr. was present, as was Lorca’s brother Francisco and his wife, Laura de los Ríos (who, as it happened, Panero had been unrequitedly in love with in the 1930s). Rosales gave Lorca’s father papers belonging to his son, and Lorca’s father asked Rosales to help sort out an issue related to a piece of land he still owned in Spain. Yet Francisco and Laura’s daughter, the niece who never got meet her famous poet uncle, later heard a different version of the meeting. “My mother told me years later that it was a tense and upsetting encounter,” she recalled, “but didn’t say anything else.” Perhaps the uncomfortable ambiguity of Zubiaurre’s account best captures what transpired as the Spaniards spoke in the city Federico had immortalized, a world away from the country where they had all been born: “I have the very firm feeling that Lorca [sr.] didn’t consider Luis [Rosales] guilty of anything,” Zubiaurre said. “Of course, he considered him an enemy, but an enemy from the war, nothing else.” An enemy from the war, nothing else—a more incongruous positive assessment of a relationship is hard to imagine, as if the Spanish Civil War hadn’t been an epic fratricide, but rather an unfortunate misunderstanding. It seemed as if the poets who had remained in Spain wished it could be merely that, even as the war’s ghosts had pursued them their entire trip. In early March 1950, the Magllanes docked in cold, foggy Galicia. The economic rewards for the poets’ three-month odyssey were meager. To supplement his payment for participating in the trip, Panero brought back contraband to sell on the estraperlo, the Spanish black market: transistor radios, scarves, tights. His spiritual rewards, however, were greater, he claimed. “How glad I am to have done that trip, precisely that one and not another,” he later wrote. “By way of pain, everything so difficult, so Spanishly difficult, so face to face with the truth!” Yet this “truth” would be offered as an explanation for how the experience swung him further to the right on returning to Spain, leading him a few years later to write a book of fiery fascist poetry that was a hate letter of sorts to his former friend, the communist Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. This reactionary book would end up marring Panero’s reputation in the coming decade as Spain’s intelligentsia began straying from Franco, including Luis Rosales. For the poet from Granada who had provoked so much outrage in Latin America, Lorca’s death would hang over him for the rest of his life, and hang over his son’s life, too. “What happened to Lorca continues to be a nightmare,” Rosales’s son said in 2016, despondent over how Lorca’s assassination eclipsed everything else his father wrote and did, much the way it had done to the travels—and travails—of the “poetic embassy” over half a century earlier. In the latter half of his life, Luis Rosales toiled away on a projected four-book poetic opus that aimed to be the culmination of a life dedicated to verse. He never finished the fourth book of the cycle, New York Despues de Muerto (New York After Death), a journey through the city of geometry and anguish that Rosales imagined taking with his dead friend Federico. This last book was inspired by his 1950 visit to New York and the feelings it had left in him. Whether the “poetic embassy” to the Americas had been a success or not no longer mattered, if it ever had. It had revealed the persistence of the dead, who could not be brought back even through that powerful human creation that has always served as a hedge against eternity—the written word. “People who don’t know pain are like churches that haven’t been blessed,” Rosales wrote in a book he published shortly before leaving for Latin America. If that was truly what he believed, then he was blessed, abundantly, by the curse of the death of Federico García Lorca.
‘Resist the Things That Give a Story a Familiar Shape’: An Interview with Kevin Nguyen

The author of New Waves on the internet, science fiction, and form. 

New Waves (One World), the debut novel from features editor for The Verge, Kevin Nguyen, is millennial in every way. The protagonist, Lucas, a Vietnamese dude, ends up working customer service at a tech job (relatable) where everyone assumes he is an engineer. He clings to his friendship with Margo, a vibrant, no-shit-taking Black woman at the company. Nguyen writes brilliantly of identity, never assuming an oppressive narrative on his characters, but furthering the complexity of their humanity. He weaves a deft story exploring capitalism, race, gender, underground online communities, and the startling shift in privacy and technology itself. With New Waves, Nguyen has ambitiously reshaped traditional forms of the novel, diversified characters, and addressed technology for all its good, as well as all its bad. Sruti Islam: Has writing a novel has always been on the horizon for you?  Kevin Nguyen: It’s kind of an annoying origin story because the entire thing is kind of very haphazard. I mean, if we even just take a step back—I always wanted to write and edit. I never thought I’d get to be able to do it professionally in journalism. That idea felt very far away from me, as did writing a novel. But basically, I get kind of anxious on the subway, and I write on my phone a lot when there’s not enough space to read a book.   There was this time in my life where I just didn’t have any assignments—this is before I was working professionally, so I was jotting down whatever into my notes app. You know, like, some imagined dialogue, stories I wanted to write, some things that happened at work, and loose concepts for funny sci-fi stories. I just put it all on the same note, and eventually the note got so long that the app crashed. So, I went to my computer and I copied and pasted out of the notes app into a Google doc, and it turns out I’d written something like 20,000 words. And at first, I was like, “What have you been wasting your time doing? Twenty thousand useless words!” And then I kind of read through it all, and it really was a mess, but I just kind of sensed that there was an interesting through line through all of it. So that kind of became the foundation of the novel. You can see it in the book, too. Structurally, the book is a bit all over the place. Which I kind of love about it. But you can see how it started out as a bunch of loose ideas in an app. The book isn't driven by some massive plot chase, but readers will find themselves compulsively turning the page regardless. Were you intending to play more with time or format?   When I started writing it as a more extended work of fiction, I started writing around the form more deliberately. But I’m actually glad that you point that out, because I think that was the biggest challenge for me. I just like when things are kind of high-concept and then executed as boring and slowly as possible—you know, I like things that are plotless. I think at the beginning the book kind of poses that there will be a bit of a plot, but it moves away from that quite quickly. It tells the reader that it’s not going to be a mystery pretty early on. And I think that the things that are happening in the book are constantly resisting plot, and it kind of mirrors Lucas’s journey, and in some ways Jill’s. But both are in search of a narrative structure to grief, and it doesn’t exist. They keep trying to do things to try to find that plot for themselves, and it just keeps not happening. So that was a challenge for me. I wanted something that would read quickly—I like books that also read quickly, which still resist the things that give a story a familiar shape. I spent a lot of time thinking about that, so I actually really appreciate you bringing that up first. Definitely. I mean, it’s such a shift in form. The climax happens in the first couple of pages, and the whole thing ends on a kind of new beginning. How did you map out the writing of this book from beginning to end? I didn’t really outline the book at all. I didn’t really have an ending in mind when I started. So, it was a lot of rearranging. I think earlier drafts were a lot more convoluted, it jumped back and forth in time a lot more. The more I moved away from a conventional structure, the better the book worked, I think. It’s kind of funny, I know it’s going to frustrate a lot of readers. I understand that. A lot of people are just not going to like that, just the way it kind of moves all over the place. But I just like the structure of a story that serves as a kind of spiral. It just keeps going around, zeroing in on something slowly and kind of circuitously. It’s a book with a lot of disparate ideas and themes going on. And I wanted those things to slowly tie together indirectly. I applaud your construction of all these varied ethnicities. My question is in relation to that Zadie Smith essay about who gets to write fiction, and then in thinking about the American Dirt stuff… Personally, I feel like New Waves is the correct response in that debate. It’s clear that it was important to you as an author to write with love and care for your characters, but there never felt like a voyeuristic betrayal. But that does not seem like an easy thing to accomplish—how did you do it? [laughs] Honestly, it was less deliberate than wanting to go out there and do this version of this thing right. I just wanted to write characters that I was interested in. I was also just very interested in a story about a friendship between people who look different and who have different experiences. Because, as you know, you’re a person of colour, that’s just what our lives are. It’s very rarely reflected in literature specifically, which I always find very odd, because I feel like literature is usually pretty far ahead of all the other mediums. So, I guess I’ll just start by saying that I think there are a lot of people out there who believe that you shouldn’t write an experience that’s not your own. And I actually understand that argument. I think there is a case to be made for that. I just personally feel like, if those are the rules, then you’ll just never get a book where an Asian man and a Black woman are friends, and that’s a way darker outcome to me. Obviously writing Lucas was easier than writing Margo, which went outside of my personal experience, even though I have lots of friends with similar experiences. But I think the secret was to make her as specific as possible. The book deals with race and racism, but these characters are not stand-ins for a bigger conversation. They’re just having their conversation. Again, Margo is an extremely specific character with an extremely specific personality and specific interests. So even though Blackness is at the center of a lot of her personality, it’s not the only part of her personality. And that was really important to me in writing characters who look different. I do understand that there’s a reality where there will be readers who do not like my portrayal of a Black woman and that’s totally fair criticism. I think it’s a very fair response. There’s this tendency with writers to have great affection for the characters they create. Is that also the case for you? That’s an interesting question. I think they’re all extremely flawed. And their flaws are loud, too. It’s funny because I knew this would happen. Where, because the point of view of character was an Asian man, people would just kind of draw this line between me and Lucas. Which is always kind of funny because I would never make decisions as bad as Lucas does [laughs]. He’s kind of a dumb fuck? [both laugh] Oh yeah, I’m going to get to that. But you know, there’s bits of myself in all the characters. Those parallels are just a little less obvious. Right, but I don’t mean that you’re similar to them, it just seems like you created them with care, flaws and all. Yeah, I think that’s true. I think I like Margo the most if I’m ranking them. It’s interesting, too, because in earlier versions of this book, I think the characters were even more unlikeable. And that softens over time through a few editors. The original version of it had three screw ups, and I don’t think it quite reads that way anymore, which I think is for the best. And I do find myself thinking about these characters a lot. It always sounded cheesy every time I heard an author say that, but then I tried my hand at this myself and realized, oh yes, I’ve spent a lot of time with these people. It feels like family, you just kind of have to love them, and you just do. It’s interesting that you point out these characters began more unlikeable than they ended up. Is it true what they say—is writing unlikeable characters just much more fun? I think that’s right. It’s fun and intellectually more rigorous and interesting. I don’t think any character in the book comes across as super well in many ways, and I think it would be boring if they did. Were you on LiveJournal? I never had LiveJournal, but I was definitely on a lot of blogging platforms. A lot of internet forums. I think in the era of LiveJournal I was probably on music forums, which kind of has the same energy, right? The same kind of community. These sites don’t actually look that different. Do you think that participation informed you as a writer? Oh yeah, for sure. I’ve just been writing for a long time in non-professional capacities. I think that writing is just this thing, where a lot of effort and talent is involved, for sure, but is just something you have to do for a while before you figure any of it out. You know, you can sort of tell when people have only ever written in school. There’s just a level that we just can’t crack. It’s kind of amazing. I also miss that era where you were just intimate with strangers on the internet, we were all faceless, this was an era we were still using anonymous handles, we were discovering weird new music this way, and it just doesn’t quite happen that way anymore.    What do you think it was about these online communities that fostered such an intimacy, and why is Twitter a total failure at replicating it? [laughs] It’s funny because I don’t want to be totally pro-anonymity because I think we live in an era with a lot of trolling, but it was sort of before coordinated harassment was a thing that happened all the time. The anonymity of these places just felt a little bit freer. One thing that I put in the book was that when I was in middle school I would get bullied all the time basically just for being Asian and not realizing that that’s what was going on. And then I would be on these internet forums, and it’s not that I wasn’t proud of being Vietnamese American but you just didn’t have to be on these forums? You didn’t have to identify as that. And you play into these other hierarchies on these internet forums, but it just momentarily unburdens you of your identity. Here’s a community where you don’t have to be this thing. Absolutely. I just think it’s kind of interesting. You really form your identity from the ground up on the internet. Right, there were no follow-up “How do you pronounce or spell your name again?” questions happening. You just had this username that stood in for all that. In the novel you create this app, Phantom, and the appeal of this app is that it ensures that your posts disappear in real-life time after sending them. You have this great paragraph where you compare the app’s commercial success to its real-life appeal, you say, “It’s like having a conversation in real time.” Okay, so my chill question is, why do you think tech thrives on recreating the real? Why isn’t the real enough? That’s interesting. Because… it’s harder to monetize, honestly. [laughs] That’s the real driver of all technology, honestly. We’ve actually found just every quiet little moment to make money off of. Every breath we take now is being used by Google to target ads towards us. I don’t think it’s a cool, wholesome thing, it’s just literally capitalism creeping into every quiet moment of our lives.  Right. I feel so dumb as a consumer. Does it not just make you feel dumb?  Yeah! It feels stupid that we didn’t always realize the internet was going to become this? We just accelerated capitalism. You’ve kind of alluded to this already. I think it’s pretty clear that Lucas doesn’t treat Jill great, and I wonder if as a man it’s fun to write the character of an immature male, or painful? Oh, it was definitely painful. I mean, consider Lucas’s journey, right. He’s this guy who’s sort of felt powerless his whole life as an Asian American man and he doesn’t have a fancy education. And throughout the book he begins slowly accumulating power, but never realizes it. Which I think is the way a lot of dumb fuck boys act in New York. It’s a book where I wanted all the consequences of people’s bad decisions (of which there are many in the book) to be emotional. I think Lucas realizes everything all at once, not really when it’s happening. He has this revelation where it all kind of hits him at once. And I think it’s interesting because as your lives change, particularly in the workplace, there’s never a point where someone’s like, “By the way, you have power now,” so I think it’s sort of easy for a character like Lucas, and also a lot of men Lucas’s age who have felt disenfranchised for a longtime, to just not engage with the power they have. The novel is interspersed with these various science-fiction stories. The reader eventually learns of their source. Was that your way of writing science-fiction without having any stakes to it, by positioning fiction within a work of fiction? Or was it an intentional challenge, to see how you would do with science-fiction?   It was a couple of things. You get to know characters in a book by what they do and what they say. And I just like the idea of understanding a character through their active generation. Like, can you understand a character by what they create? I thought that was a pretty cool challenge because I had not seen that done before. Also, just that the readers experience would mirror Lucas and Jill’s, in that they too would learn about a person based on this generation. So that would parallel between the characters in the book and the readers themselves. But also, in terms of actually writing the science-fiction stories, there was a time where I was reading a lot of Robert Sheckley. He was this sci-fi writer in the ‘60s. He wrote for those pulp-y sci-fi magazines, and all the stories are pretty funny, kind of cool, and they all have these plot twists at the end of them. And I just thought that would be pretty fun to write. I really thought of the science-fiction stories more so as an exercise in humour than as an attempt for smart science-fiction. Maybe the next book will be purely science-fiction? [laughs] No, I don’t think so. I do like the idea of speculative fiction, but more historically. That interests me more than something set in space.
‘Passivity as a Mechanism for Harm’: An Interview with Jessi Jezewska Stevens

The author of The Exhibition of Persephone Q on navigating the early internet, the absence of ambition, and identity crises both large and small. 

“Candid pupil,” writes Maria Edgeworth in An Essay on the Noble Science of Self-Justification, “you will readily accede to my first and fundamental axiom—that a lady can do no wrong.” This epigraph of Jessi Jezewska Stevens’s debut novel sets the tone: The Exhibition of Persephone Q (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux) will be a study in self-delusion. Percy is pregnant and can’t seem to bring herself to tell her husband. She spends her nights drifting through a Manhattan recently devastated by 9/11, paying visits to her psychic and working for the self-help author down the hall. Fleeing questions of identity, her own violent impulses, and the future child known only as the nebula, Percy is unmoored until the day she receives a catalogue for her ex-fiancé’s art show. The titular exhibition—a series of digitally altered photographs that show the same nude woman sleeping on a bed as the objects around her, and the New York City skyline through the window, are slowly removed—acts as catalyst. The photos are of Percy, she’s sure of it, even if they fly in the face of everything she thinks she knows of herself. Her mission is now the ostensibly simple task of being believed.  The Exhibition of Persephone Q is an intimate, precise first novel, in turns funny and unsparing. Alyssa Favreau: The novel opens with three simultaneous events. There’s a moment of sexual incompatibility, Percy’s unsuccessful attempt at asphyxiating her husband Misha, and a pregnancy. Why place all these incidents so firmly in the body? Jessi Jezewska Stevens: I’ve been interested in the way that our frustrations with the systems in which we are embedded can manifest very physically, and possibly manifest more truthfully in a physical way than consciously, even. That perhaps there are certain moments in our lives where there’s more truth to the way we are expressing our confusions and frustrations in our bodily experience than how we might be able to articulate them in words. Certainly this seems to be true for Percy, who at least at the beginning of the book is especially in denial about her life, about her marriage, about becoming a mother. She’s going through all these changes, and so she’s retreating in the way you have to do to protect your delusions. We learn much more about Percy as the story unfolds, and it is as if she’s learning about herself at the same time. Why separate her backstory so formally? It occupies its own section.  That comes partly from intention and partly the process of problem solving over the course of structuring a novel. It felt important to protect Percy’s ability to be in denial about the changes in her life until the end of the novel. In some ways that became a formal constraint. It also seems more truthful to the character at that moment, to have a bit of amnesia about the person that she’s been.  Thematically I was also interested in a kind of American condition that promises the right to reinvent oneself. For good and for bad. The idea that you can reinvent yourself is a cultural value, sort of a dream in this country, and it does rest on a great deal of forgetting. So I was also thinking of the ways in which that translates into a kind of willful amnesia. You do seem particularly interested in the question of myth making, of creating or reclaiming narrative in one’s life. In a way, I think of the idea of withholding Percy’s origin story until so late in the book as a second Exhibition of Persephone Q. There’s the literal exhibition in the book, in which Percy believes herself to be a woman in a series of intimate pictures. She is a passive character in that narrative, so I was thinking about having a second “exhibition” told in her voice. It’s possible that she could be trying to make meaning in telling that story. Or maybe another way of saying the same thing is that she reaches a certain breaking point where it becomes impossible to continue to be in denial about the person that she’s been, the people that she loves now, the mother that she might become. Speaking of being forced out of a comfort zone, out of a feeling of safety, why choose a post-9/11 Manhattan as the backdrop for this story? Questions of identity—of the narrative that one has of oneself versus the narrative others might have, and how tensions arise when those narratives come into conflict—are very central to the book. I didn’t set out to write a historical novel, but you are looking for those settings that amplify the questions you are interested in. I felt that on a national level, those questions of identity and being forced to answer the questions of “who am I?” and “do I recognize myself?” were questions that were very much present and urgent right after 9/11. I started writing this book during the 2016 election, when those questions—though they had always been urgent—came again very much to the forefront of national conversation. My hope was that in setting the book after 9/11 I would amplify those concerns, but in a way that felt very contemporary. By including characters who are experiencing the internet in a very early, web 1.0 kind of way, were you hoping more broadly for the reader to bring a modern set of references to the story? Absolutely. I hope that there are jokes to be enjoyed in returning to a slightly internet-illiterate narrator circa 2001. The contemporary reader has so much foresight when reading about Misha’s involvement in algorithmic advertising, right? We all understand today how this is going to fundamentally change not just commerce, not just the way we use the internet, but also another dominant narrative for what identity is: A set of algorithms. To the extent that there is a bit of history of the internet in the book, it is very much written for contemporary readers. Misha doesn’t feel especially comfortable with his own involvement with online advertising. It’s quite likely that he’s the sort of person who’s going to sell off all his shares before internet advertising becomes the next big thing. His anxiety there is very much a bit of a joke for the contemporary reader. It really endeared both characters to me, that their internet usage is so dated, and Misha’s worried about things like data collection and surveillance but has no idea how pressing those concerns are going to be in even ten years’ time. It was cute.   I know, and also a little bit sad too. When the Patriot Act happened we were all worried about phones being tapped, which was a real concern right? But then of course today we fast forward and now you send an email to someone and your banner ads immediately reflect the subject line of whatever you just sent. What lessons can be learned from the mythological Persephone, the one that Percy calls “original Persephone”? I was very struck by this idea of existing in two worlds, having a kind of split life or split self. That was what most interested me in building in the mythical references throughout the story, the extent to which Percy appears to be living a private reality separated from consensus reality. It does seem like she’s in a dreamland, both because the routines of the city have been so disrupted and because she doesn’t sleep at night and goes wandering. There’s that hint of surrealism. Right, and almost a kind of night world, or underworld, quality to the way that her sleep schedule flips at the beginning of the book in her effort to protect Misha from herself. Her impulse to pinch Misha’s nose and suffocate him a little bit is something she herself doesn’t seem to understand or recognize, so again there’s that idea of lacking self-recognition, or the unknowability of the self. There are latent capacities for violence in all of us. Percy buys knives, and to me there was a bit of a joke in the idea that she would be armed for most of the novel, and that she’s walking around the city on an errand to return these knives and gets very sidetracked. Because of Percy’s passiveness, it’s interesting that she is actually capable of harming others. Maybe the isolation she feels is also a way of denying that she has the capacity to affect others. Absolutely, and passivity itself as a mechanism for harm is something that is reflected in the pictures. Here is this inert figure on the bed even as there’s this enormous destruction represented around her in the room and out the window. That resonates with the harmfulness of Percy’s passivity in her own world. There’s a real invocation of the symbol of the passive woman. From the long lineage of sleeping women in art to references to the second Mrs. de Winter in Rebecca, why were you drawn to that iconography?   I was aware of the danger of writing a passive female character. One of the interesting things about Percy to me was that she was someone without ambition. I would like it to be possible to write in a way where we can acknowledge these tropes, of the passive woman or the exploited woman in art, but also reclaim them. And even be able to reclaim them in an impish way, where I get to make jokes about it. I hope that the way these tropes come up in Percy’s character, or in the works of art that she encounters, that they aren’t presented passively, that we can see around them, into the idea that when women were represented that way, much was missed.  What does it mean to you that Percy’s main goal isn’t to have the exhibit taken down, but to simply be believed when she says that the photographs are of her?  I thought that was a much more interesting story. It was more interesting to me that Percy would eventually become more offended by the idea that people wouldn’t believe her—and in not believing her, would in a way be rejecting a certain narrative of self that she’s presenting. The novel’s full of very disparate selves. There are the Percys that have her same name on the internet, the versions of her that Misha knows, that the fiancé knew. Is there ever a true self to come back to? I think there’s a kind of a moving average, if you will. I do think that the self is not really a constant, and maybe that’s one reason why all of these different selves are reflected throughout the book. There can be a sense of home or of belonging, but I don’t believe that there is a real, static self. Why have Percy undergoing such an important change? Her impending role as a mother casts a long shadow over the story. From part one to part three, we perhaps feel slightly more confident in Percy’s ability to take care of her child. She begins to enter relationships of care toward others in a way that takes on responsibility. That shift to me relates to the idea of intimacy, of recognizing it in her life and reciprocating it. It makes sense that this transition away from denial and selfishness dovetails with a move towards a greater intimacy, and the nebula becoming a little less… nebulous. Yeah, there’s a scene where Percy wonders if she has perhaps lost Misha. She’s on the street and directly addresses the nebula for the very first time, and says, “It might just be us.” That’s also true, that her relationship with the nebula, i.e. her child, also forces her to recognize her own capacity for intimacy. I read your essay “How to Buy a Rock” and was particularly struck by the line “if matters of the heart are constantly in flux then it seems to me one has to make the decision to stay in love again and again.” Do you see elements of that play out in Percy and Misha’s marriage?   Absolutely, I think that Percy makes that decision by the end. Misha would have every right at this point to choose otherwise, but seems to have made that decision once more. You asked whether there is a stable, or static self, and I’m not sure there is. If that’s true then between two people, if you are both in flux, you do continue to make the choice to be together as you’re continually becoming new people. I don’t find this to be a cynical outlook. I don’t want the book to seem ultimately cynical about love. I think that there can be something beautiful in that idea of things being constantly new. How did the titular art show first come to you?   I have genuinely always disliked posing for pictures, or having my picture taken, so probably a little bit of my own dislike. It comes down to the question of what kind of event would force Percy to confront her own denial, or make it impossible for her continue as she’s been. She has an uncomfortable relationship to the pictures too in that there’s something exploitative in them, but she recognizes that there are also elements of tenderness. It’s a complicated response that arises from that tension between her fiancé’s presentation of her and how she sees herself. It is perhaps a gain in perspective. Because of those complications, it makes it difficult at times to gauge how reliable Percy is as a narrator as she struggles to hold onto her life and her story. By the end of the novel, is there still that same uncertainty? I felt very consciously that I was going to begin a novel as a mystery but not necessarily write a mystery novel, and not necessarily solve the mystery. The last line of the book introduces some ambiguity about even the realism of the story that was just told. To what extent does Percy feel like a made, or written, character, and to what extent does it feel like someone directly addressing the reader with a personal story? I was interested in that ambiguity especially because the novel, with this exhibition at the centre, is presenting the madeness of narratives. Certain choices that I made, such as the name Percy Q, draw attention to the fact that in some ways this feels like a very made up story, that it feels very crafted. Percy Q feels like a very made up name. When I’m thinking of the effect of those choices, of having a metafictional awareness, I suppose it invites readings that approach this as an analogy or a fable, or something explicitly made in service of some other aim, rather than someone confessing a true story.
The Game Inside the Game

The NBA halftime show is a kind of Trojan horse—a secret, strange venue for performance art, hidden at the centre of one of our most mainstream entertainment juggernauts.

I got into basketball the way some people get into drugs or religion: during a bad time, as a means of cheap transcendence. This was a few years ago, in the middle of a dark and difficult winter, when I was feeling particularly vulnerable—deep in the kind of permeable, thin-skinned state that best primes a person to join a cult. Instead, I went to a Toronto Raptors game. My boyfriend, a lifelong NBA fan, had acquired two tickets and gently suggested that maybe I could use a trip outside the house. Walking up the steep stairs to our cheap seats, I remember feeling terrified of the height, certain I was going to fall backwards and roll off the edge of the balcony to my death. When we sat down I white-knuckled the back of the seat in front of me, my vision darting nervously around the arena, until suddenly I clocked the hardwood and something clicked into place. Once I was looking at the court, the scale of everything around me seemed to telescope and shift. My view of the game anchored my attention so completely that everything else in the stadium fell away. Most big arenas, of course, are designed like this on purpose, so that you can see what’s happening with relative clarity no matter how high up you are. But in that moment, I felt less like I was experiencing a standard architectural feature and more like I was at the centre of an astounding manipulation of dimension and scale. For a minute, I forgot how high up I was, forgot to be nervous about it—forgot, for the first time in forever, to be scared of anything at all. This simple collapse of distance had done what weeks of deep breathing and doubled-up therapy sessions couldn’t: it had sorted my sprawling attention into a single, focused order. Magic, I thought. But real. Once I was primed for revelation I caught it everywhere: in the balletic slope and speed of play, the psychic qualities of good passing, the emotional weather of the crowd. I was enthralled, too, by the structure of the game—not just when the players were playing, but the little interstitial skits and videos that came on at every time out. The whole night was an overstimulating, overwhelming spectacle, and I loved every part of it: the teens pitching T-shirts past my head, the big inflatable mascot trying to eat the security guard, the noise meter, "Kickstart My Heart," the Kiss Cam. The Raptor running across the court, the Raptor waving a flag, the Raptor banging a drum. By halftime, I was fully converted. When the buzzer sounded for the end of the second quarter, everyone around me jumped up out of their seats, headed for popcorn and beer and the bathroom. As I stood up to let the people in my row move past me, I looked around and felt struck by the same vertiginous terror that had hit when I first came up the stairs. Gripping the cold plastic back of my bright blue seat, I tried to keep my attention anchored on the court. For a few seconds it was empty, and then, gradually, I noticed a group of twelve-year-old girls gathering on the periphery. The announcer asked us to please welcome them, a local youth rec league who would be playing a game on the court for our halftime entertainment. There was a tiny smattering of applause. The girls ran out onto the court, ponytails swinging like pendulums. At this point my boyfriend and I were the only people still sitting in our section. Together, we watched the girls pass and post each other up, shooting layups and three-pointers from the same positions where, just minutes ago, a crew of world-famous seven-foot-tall millionaires had been doing the same thing. It was as if, during the intermission of a Broadway show, a community theatre troupe got to come up onto the stage and do their own short play. I felt a whole new dimension added to the wonder I’d felt all the way through the game’s first half; something to do with scale and size, significance. I didn’t understand how people could be missing this part of the game. It seemed as important as any other—essential to the structure of the spectacle it was nested inside. I stayed glued to my seat until the game inside the game was over.  *** Halftime is a literal sideshow, a cute little feature at the centre of the real event. Most people don’t think about it much, so it’s difficult to find a lot of concrete information about its history. The shows started getting really good circa the late ’70s-early ’80s, when the beleaguered NBA was suffering from such low viewership that even the finals aired on a tape delay. Some franchise owners decided to inject a little circus-style showmanship into their games, making halftime a little more bombastic than the plodding gameplay that surrounded it. If you didn’t care about a bunch of guys trying to get a ball through a hoop, the logic went, perhaps you might still enjoy watching a local radio DJ wrestle a bear. The contemporary halftime show retains this scrappy, slightly vintage energy, even as the game has changed radically around it. A typical performance (usually about seven minutes of the break’s total fifteen) has the anarchic, analog feel of public access television or a community talent show; there’s something about the format that seems to almost physically repel anything too fancy. If you Google “worst NBA halftime show” you’ll see a wide range of tragicomic turns by artists who have some degree of fame outside the stadium: Ja Rule’s viral flameout at a Bucks game last year, or 21 Savage, who played a Hawks game where his voice was so woefully out of sync with the backing track that his performance looked and sounded like a Shreds video. You can’t help but feel a little bad for these guys, who seem used to playing in places with sound systems that work, for crowds who bought tickets to see them. Conversely, the halftime performers who look most professional and in charge of their shit are the ones who seem most accustomed to performing on a tarp—working against an echoing sound system, directing their energy at a sea of empty seats. Most of these acts fall into one of a few general categories: - Kids and teens. School band recitals, dance performances, youth rec league basketball games. These are incredibly common, ostensibly because there is never any shortage of young people willing to play a basketball game for free. (Also, though they don’t always perform at halftime, I feel compelled to mention that the Raptors have an in-house youth dance crew called the LIL BALLAS who often perform to a medley of Drake’s greatest hits with one young child at the front dressed up in full Aubrey Graham drag, like with a penciled-on beard and everything. Few things are so simultaneously charming and stressful to watch.) - Musical performances. At the All-Star Game you might get an actually famous musician, but for the most part these tend to be the kinds of performances you’d see at a county fair or Buskerfest: Hawaiian Soundcloud rappers, 13-year-old novelty violinists who play so fast you can’t even tell if they’re good or not, that kind of thing. - Audience participation. Pretty standard stuff—your baby races, your creepy “professional Simon Says caller”s, your free throw contests, etc. - Dance crews. God’s most perfect form of entertainment. - Talent show-style acrobats. People with names like Rubberboy or the Human Slinky, people with entertaining pets, people doing handstands and precarious balancing on all kinds of equipment. There’s a lot of crossover between the performers in this category and high-ranking contestants from the TV show America’s Got Talent; the acts tend to have either the hair-sprayed perkiness of a figure skating performance or the campy, over-the-top masculinity of peak professional wrestling.  Almost every dedicated NBA fan has a favourite halftime performer, and almost all of them are drawn from this pool. I’ve told a few of my basketball-loving friends I’m working on this piece, and almost all of them have asked me whether I’m going to talk about their favourite act: the quick-change couple, or the woman who does a handstand on two canes, grips a pole with her mouth and shoots a bow and arrow with her feet, or the “human flag,” or the chair-stacking guy, or the dude with the chihuahua that crawls all over him while he does handstands on a pair of basketballs, or the mime who climbs the really crazy ladder. One friend asked me whether I was going to talk about “the speed painter,” and when I asked whether she meant the man I’d recently watched whip together a Nelson Mandela portrait in a performance that looked like Criss Angel doing Stomp by way of Bob Ross, she said No, I mean the guy who does that while singing. (Turns out there are at least three speed painters currently working the halftime circuit.)  The most popular and well-known NBA halftime performer is a woman named Rong Niu, who goes by the stage name Red Panda. She was born into a family of performers, spent her childhood in China attending a “boarding school for acrobats,” and has been doing the same act for nearly 30 years now. It is entirely useless for me to describe her performance when you are a single click away from watching it yourself, but just in case you can’t currently watch video, I’ll try.  Red Panda begins her act by riding a seven-foot-tall unicycle out into the middle of the court, where she balances for a few seconds next to an assistant (often, delightfully, a mascot), who begins to toss her some bowls. Once she has a couple in hand, she sticks out a leg, points her toes, and begins stacking the bowls up her leg—one upside-down, the next right-side up on top of it and so on, so they form a kind of tower. Then, with a single kick, she flips them up into the air where they land in a perfect stack on top of her head. Keeping the stack perfectly balanced, she gets some more bowls from the mascot, and stacks more and more of them up her leg, kick-flipping them into the pre-existing stack. By the end of her performance, she is often balancing ten bowls on her head while stacking another five up her leg. When she flips them, it’s genuinely astounding—a feat that seems so impossible you forget to wonder why she’s doing it in the first place.  Red Panda’s act is one of the few halftime shows that consistently kills—there’s real tension in it, heavy drama. Audiences actually stay in their seats for it, much to the chagrin of arena staff. (This, I have learned, is the best metric for measuring the quality of a halftime show—one former talent booker says that you know you have a good act on your hands if the vendors complain their sales are down.) I recently showed a video of her act to my grandmother, who is 92 years old and nearly impossible to impress, and within 30 seconds she was riveted. Red Panda is so beloved throughout the NBA that when someone stole her $25,000 custom unicycle from the baggage claim at an airport in San Francisco, the Golden State Warriors bought her a new one. I think the thing that sets her apart from other halftime performers, besides the sheer impressiveness of her act, is the fact that her real feelings seem to float so close to the surface as she’s doing it. A lot of other performers are fun to watch, but they work with the same stiff cheerfulness as ballroom dancers—those fake smiles that never drop, like they’re straining to make sure you don’t see any of the actual effort they’re putting in. Red Panda appears confident as she balances and flips, but her expressions seem fluid, responsive and real. While she’s stacking the bowls you can see the effort on her face—and when she finally pulls off the flip, she always looks as genuinely thrilled and surprised as you feel. It makes sense to me that NBA fans, in particular, love to see this; it feels of a piece with the up-closeness many people cherish about the sport. In its best moments, professional basketball can evince a weirdly intimate, vicarious thrill. Watching a particularly psychic pass or a flawless three-pointer, you often feel like the achievement is happening not just in front of but to you. Some of this has to do with basketball’s lack of padding and masks (you can see the expressions on the players’ faces as they work, which evinces a reflexive kind of empathy, makes it feel like theatre as much as sport), but it also has to do with the media ecosystem surrounding the NBA. *** They don’t play the halftime show on most regular TV broadcasts. Instead, the 15-minute mid-game spot is devoted to commentary, advertising, or a seamless mix of the two. The closest you get to seeing the halftime performance on air is a tantalizing split-second right before the end of the break: sometimes they’ll play a montage of slow-motion clips from the game so far, and sometimes that montage will include a fleeting silent shot of the halftime show. This image, if it appears at all, flashes onscreen right at the very end of everything else: a shimmering, dreamlike flicker of a dance crew clad in sparkling gold robot costumes that dissolves into a razor ad before you’ve even had time to process it, the way a good dream evaporates out of your mind when your alarm rings, before you’re ready to let it go. In the early weeks of my nascent NBA fandom, I watched every Raptors game on TV religiously but found it difficult to melt into the experience the way I had in the arena. A lot of this had to do with how closely all the ads encroached on the joy of the experience. At a live game, advertising is the literal wallpaper—scattered across the arena, printed on your tickets—but on TV, every time-out signals the beginning of a new barrage. If you’ve spent your life watching sports, you’re probably more or less inured to the pace and pitch of advertising in the broadcasts, but at this point the only sport I’d watched with any regularity was Jeopardy!. I was used to being gently whispered to about Gold Bond Medicated Foot Powder, not being yanked up by the collar and yelled at about drinks and shoes, cars and razors, The Keg and Real Sports, money and power and value and money.  After some research, I discovered that it was possible to access “in-game” streams through both legitimate and quasi-legal means: broadcasts of the game that showed you what was going on inside the stadium during time-outs and halftime. These feeds showed you the kiss cam and the dance crews and, most crucially, the halftime show. Pretty soon, I started watching every game I could this way—which is how my feelings about basketball grew from charmed interest to full-blown obsession. Like a lot of good art, basketball draws you in by making you feel a surface-level excitement you don’t really need any training or background knowledge to access. This pleasure can make you curious about the game—about its rules and its players, about what kinds of people can do these kinds of things and how. And once you’re wondering, the league and the media outlets that cover it have millions of answers for you. Between profiles, in-depth interviews, highlight reels, practice footage, Instagram and Twitter and YouTube and podcasts and an endlessly updating feed of statistics, there is a near-infinite wealth of NBA knowledge for you to absorb and assimilate. These two factors, up-closeness and in-depthness, work together in a cycle of exchange and encouragement that makes the NBA narcotically addictive. The more you know about a player—their life, their journey, their quirks and strengths, their effort—the more relatable they seem on an essential, basic level. For most basketball fans, investment and identification can become so fused they’re near-impossible to distinguish. Ask anyone what they love most about their favourite player and you will instantly learn something deeply personal about their desires, their values and their goals. I think often, for example, about what the poet Mikko Harvey told me a few years ago when discussing his love of D’Angelo Russell: “DLo’s fluctuations remind me of the swings between self-confidence and self-loathing so characteristic of the writing life. […] To me DLo is the scout the universe has sent to find out if you can live a life steered by intuition and imagination and still excel in a hard system that asks you to exchange your sense of play for efficient, unending labor.” This is how you can end up feeling intimately, personally invested in a millionaire’s ability to perform feats of physical strength and accomplishment you almost certainly never could. Stare at the game long enough and the distance between everything—players, league, game, court, self, other—begins to collapse. Everything becomes a metaphor for everything else, the league and your life each generating infinite layers of meaning for the other. Hard work, practice, repetition, desire: all these things are translatable. They live inside your life, too. In the best parts of professional basketball, the moments of perfect connection, all the news and money and surface-level noise seems to melt away and you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the real core of the sport—the thing that calls you to it, keeps you caring—is something warm, complex, hopeful, essentially human. Realer than real. There is, of course, an inverse version of this feeling. Sometimes if I’m watching a regular NBA broadcast on plain old live TV, there’ll be a moment when I feel shocked completely out of the moment, like I’ve been ejected from my seat or from my body. Most of the things that trigger this abrupt dissociation happen at the ad break: my five-hundredth viewing of an aggressively condescending bank ad, or the times when a player gets injured and the footage of them lying crumpled on the hardwood cuts abruptly to a commercial, inadvertently stringing the two images together like they’re part of one continuous entertainment, because they are. In these moments, I can feel the metaphor curdling, the warmth of the enterprise draining away. This feeling, when it hits, is intensely familiar. I recognize it from a lifetime of enthusiastically consuming pop culture and living on the internet. It’s the queasiness that arises from deep, extended, voluntary contact with an institution whose fundamental purpose is to conjure a strong sense of engagement out of you so that it can eventually convert that feeling into cash. I get it when I think about the NBA’s tendency to quietly elide abusive or predatory behaviour by its players; I got it this past preseason with the Daryl Morey thing. It is the gut-level understanding that the distractions you turn to for comfort and hope and soothing escapist pleasure are directed by the same currents of power as whatever you’re trying to use them to escape. It is the feeling of having given over a large portion of your attention and your life and your love to something that is scaffolded, in the end, by money. *** My love of the halftime show, like my love of the NBA, has everything to do with projection. I’m a writer who’s devoted the better part of her career to working on two books of prose poetry you could generously describe as “quietly received.” On balance, I have made no money from doing this—in fact, it has cost me more than I care to admit. It is difficult to explain this choice to anyone who has not made it themselves; most normal people think of poetry as antiquated, practically useless, and not very cool, and they are correct. (Some poets will try to tell you that poetry is “still important” or “more relevant than ever”; if they do this, they are trying to sell you a book of essays.) However much I think I share with my favourite players—however I try to work their work into a metaphor for my own life—the truth is that the NBA performers I have the most in common with are the halftime acts. Like poetry, a lot of the best halftime shows feel brazenly out of step with time, fashion, and the logic of capitalism. Some are so far removed from contemporary trends that they seem to have time-travelled here from a pre-TV era. Like poetry, I don’t think many people pursue a career in Human Slinkying or quick-change artistry because they think it will make them incredibly rich or famous. So why do it, then? Why devote your life to the endless practice of an art form that is at once unprofitable, unpopular and completely disconnected from the zeitgeist? Here I can only speak to my own choices. There are still kinds of literature in this world that you can make (some) money from writing: an author can sell a book with a strong narrative arc, or a clear thesis, or a sparkling world the reader can see in her head like a movie. I love these kinds of books, but there are things they cannot do. It has been my personal experience—and maybe yours, too—that a lot of my strongest and weirdest and most vibrant feelings live outside of the limits of these more profitable kinds of articulation. They float beyond the narrative arc. The structure of a typical argument cannot contain them, and straight description never quite does them justice. They require a stranger kind of language, a vocabulary and a grammar untethered to the question of whether the largest possible number of people will find them immediately, pleasurably understandable and pay $20-40 for the privilege. When I am writing poems or reading them to an audience, in my most successful moments, I feel like I am participating in the centuries-old communal practice of building this vocabulary—like I am doing something small and significant and strange that reaches both forward and backward in time. Is this all kind of embarrassing? Absolutely. Is it frequently ridiculous? You bet. There are so many ways in which this kind of effort can fall short or feel cringingly small, as awkward as watching a sweaty, shirtless guy balance shakily on two basketballs before a sea of empty seats. But it can also, occasionally, be transcendent. Think of how it feels to watch Red Panda, so completely immersed in her work that you can’t help but catch a contact high. This is the feeling of watching a real live human being connect with a practice that extends beyond this room, make a grand gesture toward something far greater and stranger and more complicated than the petty concerns of audience or paycheque. And at halftime, you are not just watching this happen. You are watching it under the auspices of the National Basketball Association! A corporation whose every franchise is worth at least a billion dollars, whose productions are beloved by an unfathomably broad range of people all across the globe! Does that not give you a weird glimmer of uncommon, improbable hope? To me, the halftime show is a kind of Trojan horse—a secret, strange, and completely unique venue for performance art, hidden at the centre of one of pop culture’s most mainstream entertainment juggernauts. It’s no coincidence that the show is also the longest stretch of any game that is completely untouched and untouchable by advertising. That’s why they don’t show it on regular TV—you can’t cut it with commercials, or layer them overtop. Its sustained existence inside the gigantic moneymaking spectacle of the NBA is a reminder that some kinds of art still resist commercialization, are perhaps even immune to it. It is proof that these weirder, smaller kinds of work can persist—flourish, even—in places that on the surface seem inhospitable to them. The NBA halftime show is a living example of art thriving incongruously, impossibly, inside a system where almost everything else is optimized for maximum profit. It is a demonstration of a life’s work whose significance exists apart from the size of its audience, or their response to it. It makes a different kind of meaning, both inside and outside the rules. You don’t have to be a poet to love this. It is, like your life and mine, a flash of something small and strange and real inside the big, shiny machine. Something worth staying in your seat to see.