Hazlitt Magazine

The Man Behind Meat Loaf

Songwriter Jim Steinman found his muse in the performer—and, forty years ago, they released their iconic, operatic rock album, Bat Out of Hell.

The Life of Caesar

On an undefeated star of a controversial sport.

'A Reckoning with the Hardships of the Past and Present': An Interview with David Chariandy

The author of Brother on inherited trauma, not telling stories that make Canada feel good, and how communities endure. 

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‘A Reckoning with the Hardships of the Past and Present’: An Interview with David Chariandy

The author of Brother on inherited trauma, not telling stories that make Canada feel good, and how communities endure. 

In Canada, blackness is often viewed in the shadow of our neighbours down south. David Chariandy took it upon himself to share a realistic portrait of what it means to be black in Canada with his debut novel Soucouyant: A Novel of Forgetting (Arsenal Pulp Press). This year, he managed to explore blackness on an even deeper level with his latest work, Brother (McClelland & Stewart). Moving between Scarborough in the present day and the 1990s, Brother tells the story of second-generation Trinidadian brothers, Michael and Francis. Both are doting sons to their hard-working single mother, but as the young black men navigate adolescence, we see their paths diverge. The older and more charismatic Francis is drawn to a future in music, while the reluctant Michael finds himself less interested in following in the footsteps of his brother and the other neighbourhood boys. After a fatal neighbourhood shooting, their lives spiral into chaos and tragedy. Brother is a slim volume, only 180 pages, but it manages to shed light on a Canada most rarely encounter. While focusing on a grieving family and community, we get a realistic view of the modern Canadian immigrant experience, with Chariandy poetically weaving in the functions of community and how intergenerational trauma shapes the way first- and second-generation Canadians view what it means to be Canadian. * Sarah Hagi: It’s been ten years since your last book was published. What was it like coming up with this story and the world you created?  David Chariandy: I thought after writing my first novel that a second novel would be easier. It turned out it wasn’t easier—it was every bit as difficult. In [Soucouyant], there was a relationship with two brothers that was important to me but that I didn’t pursue adequately. I knew after finishing [it] that I wanted to pursue that relationship and to think a little bit more about questions of masculinity and the different faces that black men put forward to the world. Also, when men can be truthfully vulnerable with each other about how they feel. So, that was the beginning of Brother. Then it became a kind of meditation on the gaze upon men of colour, young black men in particular, and the forms of violence that they feel growing up. The long legacies of poverty and forms of representation and prejudice that keep recycling. Kind of like an inherited trauma? Yes, that’s exactly it. I think that’s a perfect way of describing it. That’s probably the thing that I’ve wrestled with all throughout my writing career, the inherited trauma. The story felt really familiar to me, as the child of immigrants. How much of this is based on your own life? My mother came as a domestic worker in 1963. So, she lived in a Toronto that is very different from the Toronto that exists now. After years, she was able to sponsor my father. That’s a story that needs to be told—at the end of Brother, I try to gesture towards the stories that need to be heard. Maybe stories that have been told, but people need to hear them. But this is a story of immigration and a yearning for a better life. Often, the discourse around race and blackness is American-centric. Was it important for you to show this really Canadian story about blackness? For me that's very important, just as it is important to acknowledge that there’s a two-hundred-year legacy of black writing in Canada. And there's something very specific about how people become black in Canada. It is that process for many groups—of understanding oneself in different terms, and then arriving in Canada and realizing, I am black. I think about that often—it’s not like my parents, who grew up in Somalia, spent their lives back home thinking about blackness.  Exactly. I imagine it’s a profound realization and it's so important for us to acknowledge the specificity of that experience, and also the diversity of it—there's many ways of being black in Canada, of course. At the same time, it’s a different landscape. Someone I really respect highly, Christina Sharpe, talks of different weather systems of blackness and anti-blackness throughout the world and what’s possible in different weather systems. But at the same time, I think what is also really important in this novel is that in order for the young men to think beyond the narrative of themselves that they're fed, they then reach beyond Canada in music and culture, and through these cultural references they piece together a bigger sense of what it is to be black and human. A big part of this story has to do with these young men trying to make sense of their situation and where they fit into society. One thing I found really interesting was how you fit in the struggles of belonging as a first- or second-generation Canadian in the novel. Could you expand on that?  It’s so close to my heart. And maybe that's one of the things that makes this a Canadian book in certain ways: that idea of a second-generation experience of being racialized and black in Canada, of having parents that come with certain ambitions and illusions about what Canada is. For us to grow up in this context and to know something very deeply about this country, that to me is a perspective that I think is very important—many of our great black Canadian authors write about this perspective, but also have the experience of the immigration issue.  You also see this with the character of the mother in the novel. It’s almost like she has a different understanding of how things work in Canada. She’s cooperative with the cops, for example, she wants to smooth things over. Her sons aren’t as trustful. Do you think there’s a generational difference to how we approach these things?  I think possibly. I mean, I can only speak to how I imagined these particular characters. But there was definitely a difference between how the mother conducted herself with figures of authority—how she imagined that, ultimately, figures of authority would be fair—and how the boys have different assumptions based on different experiences, [that] you can't assume that a figure of authority will be fair. So out of those two different assumptions and with two different ways of living life, there is the conflict at times between two generations. There is also authentic love between the generations, and it goes both ways. There are times when the two generations don’t see eye to eye and it’s because they understand Canada differently. We have a very intimate understanding of Canada based on who we are and I imagine our parents have something different based on their hopes and gratitude and all of these sorts of things. This story also explores grief and loss in a unique and subtle way. Both the mother and Michael are constantly navigating grief in the present by not really talking about it. I think that's another crucial thing and a crucial part of it: the importance after enormous loss [of] being able to speak with others and to articulate that loss. And that's, again, the kind of work that I've done and that I hope the novel would perform—which is, after a loss, how does a family and how does a community endure? Because our communities have endured. That's the beautiful thing about people of our background. We have endured so, so much and we have come through it and that shouldn't become some sort of fairytale story of happiness. What it should be is a reckoning with the hardships of the past and the present. But at the same time pointing out the enormous degrees of courage and bravery and great love that has sustained us as different peoples throughout history. Also, a lot of the grief and mourning attached to the mother and even her son carries a great deal of shame, because you know how people in the neighbourhood see her. There’s a community dynamic with Francis becoming a cautionary tale.   I think that that is a part of the experience that the boys go through. A mother goes through loss and somehow perversely they're made to feel ashamed for things that they have unfairly experienced. And that’s the old story, I think, of marginalization, to perversely feel ashamed of something that was never your fault. For people who come to Canada, there’s a way to view success in an unattainable model minority way that sometimes we as people of colour fall into believing as well. Were you trying to humanize the “unsuccessful immigrant” with your characters? The tour of this book has just started and I’m already getting questions where well-meaning people are asking me, “Why couldn’t you tell a story that’s more optimistic? Why didn’t Michael become a doctor?” But that’s not fair to another experience, and yes, there will always be exceptions who claw themselves out of difficult circumstances and become the example. I’m not knocking those who have to play the role of the example, but I’m not really interested in that. I think sometimes an audience is looking for a story that makes Canada feel good. I’m more interested in the stories of past and ongoing vulnerability, because those are the most important stories to tell about the nations we live within. That’s the character of our nation, not the few who managed to achieve success.
The Man Behind Meat Loaf

Songwriter Jim Steinman found his muse in the performer—and, forty years ago, they released their iconic, operatic rock album, Bat Out of Hell.

“But as they pulled him from the twisted wreckWith his dying breath they heard him sayTell Laura I love her” - Ray Peterson In 1978, Jim Steinman was on tour promoting his first album with his collaborator, a man of immense size—in both vocal and physical presence—calling himself Meat Loaf. For Bat Out of Hell’s big opening track, Steinman sought to make a splash. His idea was to write a car crash song, inspired by the car crash songs of the ‘50s and ‘60s—a pure rock and roll song, but one that would blow the rest out of the water. He wanted to create a crash song so huge, so spectacular, so violent and operatic as to render the genre practically obsolete. Nobody would be able to top it. The song, “Bat Out of Hell,” runs an impressive 9 minutes and 52 seconds, features epic guitar riffs, the sounds of a motorcycle revving (actually an audio trick producer Todd Rundgren created using his electric guitar), multiple musical changes and Phil Spector-esque wall of sound extremity. Eventually, the song reaches a kind of sonic volume that feels like it’s about to explode. “Then I'm down in the bottom of a pit in the blazing sun,” Meat Loaf howls at the song’s climax. “Torn and twisted at the foot of a burning bike.” Jim Steinman’s goal was to make “the most extreme car crash song of all time,” and that’s exactly what “Bat Out of Hell” is. Applying strict labels to Steinman’s body of work is folly. In his songs, musical theatre excess bumps up against punk brashness slamming into Springsteen-esque rock grandeur wrapped up in ‘60s doo-wop, and coated in a Heavy Metal-inspired aesthetic. His piano-laden hits—which everyone knows whether they know his name or not—range from Barbra Streisand’s bombastic “Left in the Dark” to Céline Dion’s even more bombastic “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now.” He wrote Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and Air Supply’s “Making Love Out of Nothing at All” and Barry Manilow’s “Read ‘Em and Weep.” Steinman’s music is big. It’s sweeping. It’s also silly, prone to goofy wordplay and goofier oxymoron. So playfully constructed is Steinman’s work that the Wikipedia entry for the Meat Loaf classic “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)” from the “sequel” album Bat Out of Hell II features a lengthy subsection on the “Perceived ambiguity of ‘that’.” Yet listening to that twelve-minute beast of a song, you’d be forgiven for succumbing to its utter sweep. It’s a funny song, sure, occasionally verging on novelty. That’s part of the appeal, but it’s all done in such grand fashion, culminating in a thrilling male-female duet, and held together by a deviously catchy chorus. “[Steinman] is, perhaps, the lost genius of pop, stranded—lamentably unlauded—in a world of rock with opera's attitude, where life has stopped at the point of adolescence that childhood dreams are shattered,” wrote John Aizlewood for Q Magazine upon the release of Bat Out of Hell II in 1993. “Every chorus is like losing your virginity, every verse is like killing your parents. It's as if Phil Spector and Richard Wagner were making records together.” * The first single Jim Steinman ever bought was the 1960 Ray Peterson classic, “Tell Laura I Love Her.” Written by Jeff Barry and Ben Raleigh, the mournful rockabilly song about a tragic stock car race touched a nerve. Its country inflected balladry, doo-wop undercurrents, late–1950s car culture idolatry, and melodramatic air of teenage tragedy conjure at once an image of an era and a mournful timelessness. The song followed on the success of “Teen Angel,” performed by Mark Dinning, which had reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in February 1960 and inspired a slew of popular imitators. The mode was clear: romantic anarchy built on the embrace of death and the flouting of adult rules, but with extreme reverence for what James A. Michener referred to in 1965 as a gang’s “code.” In other words, about as pure a representation of the American teenage mind as one could hope to find at the start of the decade, and later epitomized in George Lucas’s nostalgic ode to the era, American Graffiti, whose wall-to-wall soundtrack of forty-one hits from the ‘50s and ‘60s made sure to include “Teen Angel.” Those early rock and roll hits were controversial for their time, feeding white-bread suburban teens a steady supply of death fantasies. But the era’s apparently lightweight, romantic sensibilities would shortly give way to a more seriously considered form of rock music, and ever more controversy in the form of Dylan, The Rolling Stones and others. Songs about death became far more self-important and often morose. Richard Corliss, writing for The New York Times in 1967, described the new selection of high-brow rock songs on the charts as being as far from the earlier “medieval Liebestoden”—those “tawdry train-wrecks,” he called them—“as Shakespeare is from Seneca.” The last great car crash song of the ‘60s was the Shangri-Las’ 1964 No. 1 hit “Leader of the Pack,” actually about a spectacular motorcycle crash, and though suffused with death, it is a toe-tapping pop classic—and another of Jim Seinman’s favourites. * It’s no accident that Jim Steinman’s songs veer into the theatrical: his roots were in musical theatre. Steinman grew up in love with opera. In the late 1960s, he attended Amherst College in Massachusetts where he worked on several musical projects. In 1969 he wrote and starred in The Dream Engine, an occult rock and roll musical that served as his independent study at Amherst, and featured themes—and even lyrics—which would recur throughout the rest of his career. In fact, more than perhaps any other modern music producer, Steinman’s willingness to pilfer his own work is impressive. The move fits with his Wagnerian influences, prizing leitmotif on top of the grand scope. Looked at another way, his entire career can be seen as one long workshop for a grand musical that was never produced. Songs he’d written for The Dream Engine would go on to be recorded as recently as 2016, in his fourth collaboration with Meat Loaf, Braver Than We Are. The seeds of some of his most famous songs can be found in it, too, including the “turn around” lyric and call-and-response structure that would become central to “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” The Dream Engine was seen by Joseph Papp, head of the New York Shakespeare Festival, who hired Steinman to stage it professionally. Years of workshopping went nowhere. Eventually Steinman wrote another musical, More Than You Deserve, a lurid Vietnam War story that ran for several weeks at the Public Theater in late 1973. It was on that production that Steinman met Marvin Lee Aday, aka Meat Loaf. Around the time Meat Loaf was starring in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, he and Steinman collaborated on a series of songs which would eventually become the basis for Bat Out of Hell. The seeds of the album were planted earlier in the decade, while Steinman was at work attempting to reshape The Dream Engine into a Peter Pan-inspired musical called Neverland, a reflection of Steinman’s career-spanning obsession with eternal youth. Though that project never properly got off the ground, it featured work that would later end up on Bat Out of Hell, including the title track. All Steinman needed was a muse to help him bring it all together, and in Meat Loaf he found just that. Meat Loaf and Steinman spent several years in the mid–1970s attempting to get Bat Out of Hell off the ground, taking it to every record label they could find without much luck. Recording began in 1975, without a label attached, but with Todd Rundgren producing. Steinman eventually found a willing buyer in record executive Steve Popovich, who set up the project as the first release from his independent Cleveland International Records. The album was finally released in October 1977 and became a sensation—some estimates put it at over 40 million sold worldwide, one of the biggest albums in history. Its style was a fuck you to the prevailing trends in rock music at the time, from Fleetwood Mac, to Boston, to Abba, taking inspiration from prog rock and punk, but with much more soul. "Our music has fever, fantasy, violence, passion, rebellion and fun, their music doesn't have those things," Steinman told British journalist Simon Kinnersley in 1978. “Punk misses the romance and fantasy, and it comes from a different social class and I can't relate to it. But we're trying to get away from the synthesis of homogenized rock and roll.” Max Weinberg, who played drums on the album, described its songs as “mini plays, mini operas” that, in his words, “made you feel like you were watching a show when you were listening to them.” Steinman and Meat Loaf delivered on the “show” aspect in spades, touring the album as The Neverland Express with Steinman himself accompanying on the piano, gaining massive acclaim and a dedicated following. Peter Goddard, reviewing the concert for the Toronto Star in 1978, wrote, “Because of his size, Meat Loaf might have played the jovial goof on stage, a sort of rock ‘n’ roll Jackie Gleason, as do so many other heavy-set rock singers. Instead, he glowered, threw his body around and, in general, expended so much energy his lungs were pumping like forge bellows throughout his set.” The spectacle was the draw and Meat Loaf as a stage act was the perfect expression of Jim Steinman’s artistic id. Kitschy, manly, melodramatic, and literally huge. Todd Rundgren has described Meat Loaf as the Christian to Steinman’s Cyrano de Bergerac: a vessel. “I can’t imagine Steinman being in a car by the lake with the most beautiful girl in school,” Rundgren explains. “I can imagine him imagining it, but that’s about it.” At first sight, few would figure Meat Loaf for a macho sex god, but then you’d hear his voice and you see him perform and he became sex incarnate. He was a mad, leather-clad oddity, like something out of a Steinman fantasy. Go figure. * Though it contained seeds of songs that ended up on Bat Out Of Hell, of all the songs that grew out of The Dream Engine, none have been more essential or iconic than Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” Released in 1983 and a karaoke classic the world over, Tyler’s scratchy voice reaches breathless heights on the track. But it’s not just the power of her singing that makes it work. Like Meat Loaf, Tyler acted as a pure vessel for Steinman’s lyrical and compositional excesses. “It was an aria to me, a Wagnerian-like onslaught of sound and emotion,” Steinman told People. “I wrote it to be a showpiece for her voice.” “Total Eclipse” came on the heels of a rough patch—one of many—in Steinman’s relationship with Meat Loaf. The two had duelled over myriad issues, including disputes over work done on their second album, Dead Ringer, Steinman’s solo effort Bad for Good, the naming rights to Bat Out of Hell and more, with off-and-on legal battles lasting well into the 2000s. At one point Meat Loaf claimed that “Total Eclipse” had been written for him. Tyler disputes this, saying that Steinman only finished the song after their first meeting. “Total Eclipse” is not a Meat Loaf song, and it couldn’t have been. The song was clearly written for a woman—albeit Steinman’s idea of a woman. “Once upon a time I was falling in love / But now I'm only falling apart,” the song goes, reflecting a romantic vulnerability Steinman would never allow, nor possibly even conceive of, in his male muse. Even the line “giving off sparks,” originally found on the title track of Bad for Good, has been altered in its context to embody a kind of operatic feminine ideal. “We’re living in a powder keg,” the line begins, changed from the far stranger and more distant, “But the Northern Lights are burning.” The new intimacy afforded Tyler in the song is striking. It’s a true heartbreak ballad as sung by one of the angels Steinman so regularly references, as over-the-top indulgent as anything he’s ever produced, but also small in a way, clear in its emotional scope, grounded in humanity and free of his usual nostalgic caricature. It’s still a teenager’s view of love and heartbreak, only one more interested in direct expression of emotional experience than narrative posturing. The posture is reserved instead for the music video. Directed by Russel Mulcahy, the man behind the iconic video for “Video Killed the Radio Star,” but really “directed” by Steinman himself, the “Total Eclipse” video features Tyler in an angelic white dress, walking around a dark, blue-lit, gothic mansion, the apparitions of her romantic fantasies of boarding school boys flashing before her in succession. There are doves, and boys with glowing eyes, and open doorways, and fencers, and ninjas, and flowing drapery, and a leather-clad gang of bikers dancing. It’s a style Steinman would come back to in the video for 1993’s “I’d Do Anything for Love,” directed by Michael Bay and featuring Meat Loaf as a bike-riding beast chased by helicopters into a mansion where his love awaits, seductively writhing on a bed for much of the lengthy running time. The same style is repeated in the videos for both versions of “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now.” The classic Céline Dion song is in fact a cover of a previous arrangement Steinman had put together for a side project called Pandora’s Box. The 1989 original sounds nearly identical to the later, more famous cover by the French-Canadian superstar, and the videos share plenty of DNA. The first video was directed by British filmmaker Ken Russell, and features a bizarre scenario in which a woman is being revived after a fiery motorcycle crash, having visions of a studded leather orgy set in a cemetery. The Dion video is, of course, far less sexual, though no less Steinman. Once again there’s the blue lighting, a mansion, romantic visions, and a ghostly man on a motorcycle haunting his lover after a terrible wreck. The proverbial leader of the pack. Though directed by Nigel Dick, even he admits that almost all of the video’s details came straight from Steinman’s mind, telling the CBC, “I think, looking back now—I mean, he should have directed the video. That’s the truth of it.” Steinman’s aesthetic concerns have always stretched well beyond the songs themselves. Putting together Bat Out of Hell, he insisted on its now-iconic cover design, illustrated by Heavy Metal comic artist Richard Corben. “I don't even disassociate it from the songs, the performer, the writing. It was an obsession of mine,” Jim Steinman has said of the cover, adding that the artwork “looks like the music sounds and like the show felt.” His approach to music videos is no different, inseparable from the music itself. “It’s All Coming Back” was one of Dion’s biggest hits, and according to Slate music critic Carl Wilson, author of the seminal Céline book Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, it’s her best song as well. It brings out the best in her, not just her voice, but her personality. “There are few things that producers ever did with her that used all of the bombast that she’s capable of,” Wilson told me, “but also the fact that she’s kind of funny, that she’s sort of an amusing figure in a lot of ways.” The song, released in 1996, was also Steinman’s last giant success. Meat Loaf has regularly mined Steinman’s back catalogue in attempts to re-establish relevance—going so far as to record his own gaudy cover of “It’s All Coming Back”—and Steinman himself has worked on various projects, including Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Whistle Down the Wind, and Roman Polanski's German stage musical adaptation of his own Tanz der Vampire, but none have landed with as much force as his most-known work. Not even his recent album with Meat Loaf, nor the positively reviewed Bat Out of Hell musical. * There’s something lacking in the shape of modern music that denies entry to those who’d follow in Steinman’s footsteps. Wilson points to the outrageous tone, the thin line of Gothic show tune extravagance verging on camp, that Steinman’s work, particularly with Meat Loaf, would often ride. “It gets at the kind of ridiculousness, adolescent emotion, and drama in that way,” Wilson says, “by using that self-consciously, at once sincerely desperate tone, and also this poking fun at its own ridiculousness.” It’s a style, he says, that finds its antecedent in the ‘60s Phil Spector pop-rock era Steinman clearly reveres. Pop music recording itself may have also changed a little too much in the intervening years, becoming colder and more electronic in the age of digital mastering. “What sounds good in a digital production style is not necessarily that kind of vocal,” Wilson says. Those powerful grace notes in Bonnie Tyler’s performance, where her crackly voice almost seems to break, are few and far between these days. Adele’s voice is huge, but the songs are polished to a sharp sheen. Rihanna has allowed herself more unvarnished vocal performances in recent years, particularly on “FourFiveSeconds,” but when the songs get bigger they get too clean to ever match the wall-of-sound mania of a Steinman production. And when modern artists do attempt that kind of musical desperation, it’s often through digital tricks like Auto-Tune used to create artificial vocal wavering, Wilson says. Perhaps Jim Steinman is a man out of time, straddling several decades at once, never quite fitting into any one. It’s in a way a testament to his unique flair that he never inspired many real imitators. There are other big pop ballads. There always have been. Yet, none with quite the combination of earnest pop romanticism and Wagnerian attitude. In 2013, A.V. Club critic Zack Handlen described Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball” as “bombastic and sappy and fun to listen to, like something Jim Steinman might’ve written if he was running low on words.” That great song may be the closest we’ve come to Steinman in the last 20 years, though it misses the outlandish imagery and operatic impact. It may be that what sets Steinman apart is his dedication to a feeling; not an emotion, but a visceral response. "My songs are anthems to those moments when you feel like you're on the head of a match that's burning,” Steinman said in a 1978 Rolling Stone interview. “They're anthems to the essence of rock and roll, to a world that despises inaction and loves passion and rebellion. They're anthems to the kind of feeling you get listening to 'Be My Baby' by the Ronettes. That's what I love about anthems—the fury, the melody and the passion.” In a way, it’s appropriate that Steinman’s work should exist outside the space of the pop conversation, flying like a bat out of hell out and over a timid landscape of easy hooks and ironic emotional detachment. Though Steinman’s songs peddle in ironic humour, they are anything but ironic. They’re as pure as they are grandiose. Majestic as they are silly. Steinman’s music soars above the everyday and into the magical, yearning endlessly for youth, to recapture it, to “tell Laura I love her,” and then to blow it all to smithereens in maximalist wonder, riding away from the wreckage on a black motorcycle into the blazing sun, all to the sound of a grand piano and an American guitar.
The Life of Caesar

On an undefeated star of a controversial sport.

There was something uncanny about Caesar. That he was named at all—it is the cruel reality of cockfighting that it would not make much sense to name a bird, even a beloved one, too soon—marked Caesar as a gamecock of particular skill. He was a living heirloom, lovingly cultivated, his blood forever belonging to the family of his breeder, “John.” Caesar was bred, hatched, and raised in the Basketball Belt, one of those state-straddling amalgams more defined by culture and geography than political boundaries and with names like car accidents—in this case, Kentuckiana. John lives where the region begins to roll and distend like the soft leather of a reptile egg; to reach Caesar’s home, one cuts through hills and miniscule hollers, along roads that undulate, dip, and swerve like kraits, through towns where there is no stoplight. He died here as well—not in a fighting pit, like many of his peers and all of his opponents, but of a sudden, mysterious, and intractable illness. He died among a harem of hens and the nascent bearers of his blood, more beloved companion than battle-scarred warrior. I only met Caesar once, but he stayed with me for years. It is little wonder; these birds have inspired humanity for centuries—still today we name our sports teams after them and fashion our idioms around them (“cock of the walk”). Fighting cocks supposedly inspired the Greek general Themistocles’s troops, who, properly roused, would go on to rout Xerxes’s Persian navy at Salamis, making a gamecock the savior of the western world, apocryphally. But oh!, has the sport's standing sunk since. When Louisiana outlawed cockfighting in 2008, cockers lost their last refuge in the continental US. Local police work closely with federal agencies to apply interstate commerce statutes for gamefowl or the possession of paraphernalia, the mere owning of which—as opposed to the birds themselves—is illegal. Driving a rooster across state lines or using knives made in a different state, for example, can mean getting slammed with a full-on federal offense. Simply attending a cockfight is a crime, and especially so with a minor. Furthermore, in some jurisdictions, if the authorities can prove that you own a gamefowl with the intent to fight it, they can take you in; proving the intent can be as simple as finding a gaff on the property or having eyewitness reports of fighting, and as complicated as sending in undercover agents. Perhaps the greatest opponent of the bloodsport is the Humane Society, which works hand-in-glove with law enforcement and considers cockfighting to be unnecessary and extreme cruelty, the birds merely blood sacrifices to the gambling gods. The birds, regardless of one’s position on their purpose, have left an indelible mark on society. Cockers—those who breed, raise, and fight gamecocks—and the Humane Society—the organization whose task it is to stamp the practice out—alike find common ground here: both can readily and easily wax upon the beauty of the gamecock when asked, and the animals are, indeed, tremendously fine to behold. Their coloring is resplendent, rich, oxygenated russet reds and British Racing Greens, luxurious soupcons of purple, off-white the raw beauty and animal power of cracked bone. Their tails jut into the air with a proud, martial carriage, and their cuirass breasts and powerful thighs resemble the terrible swells of a recurve bow, all muscular billows begging for conversion to kinetic energy. Finest of all of the dozens of birds I saw at John’s was Caesar, whom we came upon tucked up and away in the back corner of his roost, watching his small kingdom with an imperiousness befitting his name. Caesar had been tested with steel, as the cockers put it—i.e., fought, with sharp gaffs attached to his legs, in cockfights—eleven times, going undefeated in the process. Here was an athlete who had literally put his life on the line in pursuit of something intangible to him, a pure example of sport red in spur and beak, a perfectly bred creature who knew only victory. Contrary to popular belief, a gamecock mustn’t die for a fight to be over; just as roosters in the wild (or on farms) do not always fight to the death when establishing pecking orders, bouts can be called when one effectively “taps out” by refusing to fight. None of Caesar’s fights, however, ended this way. * “What I like most about it, is it starts out as a thought in a man’s mind,” John says, easy rural warmth in his drawl, of gamecock breeding. “Just a thought: ‘What if I crossed these two families?’ Then it becomes an egg. Twenty-one days later, you’ve got baby chicks. A year later you’ve got stags who are old enough to spar, and you can see, ‘Well, that worked out, but this over here, on the other hand, did not.’ Two years later you’ve got gamecocks. But in the beginning, it started out just a thought in a breeder’s mind.” Caesar’s origins, like those of all highly bred animals, be they horses, dogs, or cats, are in his blood. His bloodlines came from out of state—farther south, John implied, where the gamefowl are better and the tradition stronger—with one of his parents belonging to a close friend of John’s. At least one ancestor was a proven fighter; John does not speak much about the blood, but his smile and knowing looks reveal he knew he had something fine to work with. Besides, a father’s fighting record isn’t everything. “The hens get … little respect, I guess,” John says. “Because in reality, the hen is the goose that lays the golden egg. They are the ones. Your stags will become more like their mammas, and the pullets [a young hen] will become more like their fathers, you know what I mean?” According to John, an average rooster and an exceptional hen will make a finer fighter than a pit-proven cock and a dud. He looks for hens that crow and that are exceptional mothers—these he takes to be signs of courage and intelligence, the two most important qualities in a gamecock. Paradoxically, he also looks for birds that are nothing but pussycats when it comes to anything but another cock. Caesar possessed the traits John seeks out in all his gamefowl: “Extremely aggressive, extremely athletic, and yet my little girl could go out there and carry him around like a pet.” Not only does this sort of temperament make them easier to work with—imagine reaching into a cage to a cannonade, beak! spur! wings! feet! all soundtracked, ruough ruough ruogh ruhruhhhhghhhh, multiple times a day, 365 days a year, year after year after year—but for John, it’s another sign of smart breeding. He prides himself on his breeding over anything else. Culling the bloodlines—for reasons of, among other things, over-aggression—is, according to him, the most crucial part, and key to understanding how cockers view their sport. That is, as an extension of and availing to the rooster’s natural tendency to fight.11Roosters who are found undeserving of generational immortality are either sold for bargain prices or sent to “freezer camp”—John’s family can attest to their fine flavor (they say his eggs, coming from only the strongest and smartest of hens, taste superior as well). What he is avoiding is indiscriminate hostility, which he takes as a sign of low intelligence and difficulty to work with; think an over-aggressive boxer getting beat by better technique. To him, the bird need not be a wild beserker to want to fight another cock—he’ll do that anyway—so the intelligence is more important. To John, cockers are not forcing their birds to do something unnatural. Rather, they are, via breeding, rearing, and sparring, simply honing their nature. John says he actually respects and admires the Humane Society in many ways: a former farrier, the sight of ribs on a horse upsets him greatly, as does dogfighting—a dog must be tortured and twisted into becoming an effective killing machine. Roosters, however, can and will attack one another for simple reasons of dominance—that you cannot keep two roosters in one henhouse is not simply an idiom—and that, to cockers, makes all the moral difference. * After hatching, Caesar began his life as a free-range bird, wandering John’s backyard—a forked ridge, separated by a small but dramatic gully, the wire cages complete with roosts and wind-sheltering barrels running along either side as if sentries—and his neighbor’s. Caesar ran amongst the other little chicks, all of them catapulting into each other in mock combat. After he got a little older, he would explore John and his neighbor's yards. The explorers, in John’s experience, are always the better fighters: if they can fend for themselves against the dogs and hawks and coyotes, they can certainly have the wits and wile to give another gamefowl a run. “Fear wasn’t—he didn’t know the meaning of the word fear,” John says. Caesar roamed until he began to approach the other's cocks cages, “getting bad thoughts.” “Real bad thoughts,” John’s wife adds. (Natural animosity, honed over centuries!) Within months, a pecking order is established among the tennis ball-looking chicks, which remains undisturbed for six months or so, when the bad thoughts begin and the birds must be penned, lest they tear their own toes off attempting to move up the order through the wires of the cages. They’ll also shake up the pecking order when it rains, as the now soaked roosters don’t look like they did before. Caesar ate a proprietary blend of feed—“the best feed money can buy,” John says—in order to raise the healthiest and strongest bird. For his animals, he likes soaked oats, racehorse oats and whole oats, supplemented with apple cider vinegar. Corn for energy, wheat, and 14-17 percent protein. You want a lean, muscular bird, not a fat one halfway to the dinner table. “You want him to have all kinds of body,” John says. “But … you want him to feel like he’s made out of cork. You can pick up a big old cork, that’s got a big substance to it, but it’s light as air.” Fat can be deadly for a gamecock; their ability to take flight, high and often, can be the difference between life and death. To bring a bird in ill-health to the pit is to sign his death warrant, and it begins with the feed he ingests. Caesar, John says, was never sick a day in his life until he died, a rapid auguring in over three days. All of the antibiotics and other treatments John could think of failed. Inside John’s cages—Caesar, like all of John’s other gamefowl, was rotated among them to prevent boredom, and tethered outside when weather permitted—was a floor of thick straw, onto which John tosses the feed. This not only gives the roosters something to scratch, which they adore, but the constant pawing of the medium also built up their crucial leg muscles, in the same way athletes flex their fingers in buckets of rice to strengthen their grips. He did nothing but explore, eat, and scratch until he was old enough to spar, at roughly eight months. To spar, the cocks have their spurs covered by tiny boxing gloves, and they are allowed to go at each other for a few minutes at a time, just to experience combat. Within four or five fights, John knew that Caesar was a derby cock, worthy of competing in big money fights against birds raised by cockers as dedicated as he was; in essence, the cockfighting major leagues. * A cockfight takes place within a pit, usually circular or rectangular, surrounded by a wall and a fence—these fuckers can fly—and marked by pit lines eight feet apart. The pit where Caesar began his career, by comparison, was massive: roughly fifty feet in diameter, with stadium seating all around and a ring of bleachers atop it spiraling up into the sky, in an American region best known as Way Down South. And all up in those bleachers, eyes watching, eyeteeth flashing, minds calculating, were cockers, their family and friends and fans, John’s people, ready to watch one of the world’s oldest sports. The Romans referred to it as “the Greek diversion,” and cockfighting was one of England’s—and her colonies’—most popular pastimes throughout the 17th and 18th century, according to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Benjamin G. Rader’s book American Sports: From the Age of Folk Games to the Age of Televised Sports. Cockers particularly love to say that George Washington partook of the sport, and that “Honest” Abe Lincoln got his nickname from his calm and steady hand as an official in the pit, though evidence for both claims is limited at best. His first fight came against a huge gamecock, gray to Caesar’s red. John was worried. His sympathetic nervous system put him into that special overdrive—afflicted him with the same mixture of tension and excitement, he said, one gets watching their kid compete. It is a singular tension and thrill, to see a living, breathing thing into which you’ve invested two years and considerable resources, both financial and otherwise, put its life on the line—and although nervous, he was not surprised at the quality of his opponent. “I wasn’t at a place where they bring second-hand roosters, man. When you show up there, you better have some double-barrel aces, you know? Or you ain’t gonna stand a chance.” John had seen enough in Caesar to debut him here, with lots of money on the line—John won’t get into specifics, but hundreds of dollars is almost a given, and thousands would not be unheard of—and the finest of competition. You’d better be on, he thought. This is for real. The birds are weighed, with a colored band denoting their weight attached to their legs and a corresponding ticket given to the cocker. Gamecocks are paired off by weight, and, after getting their weight re-checked, the ticket collected, and the band removed, are prepared to fight. Moleskin wraps are applied to their legs, and a soft strap featuring their weapon is then attached over top of their natural spurs, lengthening their strikes and increasing the lethality. John refuses to fight with knives, which are exactly what they sound like; he considers them too deadly, too much in the favor of the gambler, who wants one fight over quickly so he can get to another. As such, Caesar was always armed with gaffs, which are long, thin, viperine crescents ending in smooth, round points. The only people allowed inside the ring are “pitters” and a referee. At the ref’s order to “bill your cock,” the pitters will present their respective gamecocks to each other, who will throw up the feathers around their necks like cobra hoods and begin to peck away, their hostility coming to a boil. If a cock does not peck while being billed, he is deemed a “no show” and loses. When both birds are suitably fired up, they are released. The opening salvo of a cockfight is equal parts balletic and ballistic, as the cocks launch into parabolic flurry, more than six feet high, each attempting to spear the other with his spurs. The cocks get their feet and spurs in a poleaxe position, kicking their big tails down to pull their head and neck out of the fray. “You don’t want a rooster who runs in there with his head down,” John says. “He’ll get killed.” If the birds tangle up, the pitters can separate them under the watchful eyes of the ref—to prevent, say, a plunging in of a gaff, or other forms of subterfuge; as John says, “his life and your money” are on the line inside the ring, and high stakes invite desperation and deception—and a count comes in to play. If the wounded gamecock does not show signs of a fight after the count is over, he has effectively tapped out. If he does continue to battle, the roosters are “pitted”—placed on the lines, again, and allowed to launch attacks anew. Matches between athletic and accurate—that is to say, well-bred—gamecocks shouldn’t last more than a few minutes.22Slow but unyielding cocks will eventually be moved to a sideline, smaller “drag pit” to finish out their match at a derby—got to keep the card moving! Caesar’s intelligence and blood gave him a cold lethality. “He didn’t have long fights,” John says. “They’re in and out and in and out then one of them falls dead and it’s over.” Gamefowl, thanks to their powerful breasts, are fairly well armored from the front, so the head and sides are considered the best places to target. John prefers a cock who will hit with speed and accuracy at the thin skin just beneath his opponent’s wings, where the gaff can reach major organs, collapsing lungs and piercing hearts. A shot to the head or neck can end a fight in one move, but those smaller targets are easier to miss; like a sniper, Caesar would aim for center of mass kills. “I mean, a marksman who can’t hit the bullseye ain’t much of a marksman,” John says. “Caesar was one of them kinds that, when he throwed a lick, it counted.” Caesar and the gray gamecock launched into their initial conflict, with Caesar getting cut on their first encounter. Still, his aggression and accuracy were simply too much; the combatants were pitted three times, taking to the ground after their second pitting for brutal close-quarters fighting somewhere between a knife fight and kickboxing. “He put one in that gray and he was dead,” John says. “I shook hands and it was over.” * With two more victories, Caesar earned both his name and his status as an ace. Most gamecocks are tested with steel five or six times over their lives; Caesar, continually killing any and all who came before him, fought twice that many bouts. He was, by any measure and regardless any ethical or moral qualms, an extraordinary athlete in a game that for him was life. His final fight was a few years ago, against a fearsome fellow red, tall and beautiful, who was nearly his equal from his feathers to his form. “He could fight in the air, he could fight on the ground, he was a shuffler, he was a powerhouse,” John says of the bird with a mixture of respect and worry. “He had it all, man. Just like me. And when you see that going on, you know one of you’s going to die, and it ain’t gonna take too damn long.” But it did. This was perhaps Caesar’s longest fight, with five to six pittings, a vicious contest between equally matched birds. John recalls picking him up between bouts and handling him “like an egg,” his bloody body scored across his ribs and back with the kinds of injuries he was used to delivering. John knew Caesar was in pain, but he still looked stronger than his foe. Caesar pinned him up against the wall, raining blows from his superior position with his beak, his wings, his body, his gaffs. John’s friend urged him to call for a count, fearing that a missed strike could shatter Caesar’s leg against the wall, but John felt this was his last chance. “We had to finish him, because if we didn’t, he would finish us,” John says. “It had come down to that.” Flush with the wall, Caesar finally laid his enemy—first ordained by nature and competition, then honed to a fine, flesh rending point by humanity, genetics, and gambling—low, his final kill in a perfect career from which none but he escaped. “When I walked out of the pit with him then, I was like, ‘This is it,’” John says. “I pushed him. He’s given me more than any rooster’s ever given me.” * Caesar retired to a life of breeding and feeding, unencumbered by any edicts to keep weight or fat content within a certain parameter, with no hazarding of his life on the horizon. His sons roam the ridges their sire used to, a generation already in cages, crowing mightily. Caesar, after all, knew nothing of the legal and moral maelstrom which surrounded his life; he knew only his home, another rooster, blood, and death, death at his spur. It is not currently a crime to raise and breed gamecocks, and perhaps it never should be—the birds are tremendous, smart and strong and worthy additions to a genetic pantheon humanity has rendered little more than a mutant laughingstock in most all of its other forms. The mastiff, the bulldog, the terrier, all trace some aspect of their breeding to bloodsport and all are now faithful companions whose existence does not raise much ire or bouts of ethical concern. John doesn’t fight anymore, though; the penalties are far too steep for a man with a family to take care of. His remaining connection to the sport comes from his breeding, from the cultivating of bloodlines which are centuries old, and Caesar’s blood is his finest, a treasured possession and possibly endless family legacy. “Breeding’s like breathing,” John says. “Breed in, breed out, breed in, breed out, breed in, breed out; you’ll keep ‘em strong, man. Healthy. I’ll have some of his blood ’til I—crcshkk—croak.”
Featuring Vicky Mochama
The specific way men interview women (5:05), Rory Gilmore, journalist (17:17), and the Avril Lavigne riots of 2021 (48:27)
The Science of Bringing Back Dead Animals: An Interview with Britt Wray

The author of Rise of the Necrofauna on cloning departed pets, important beetles, and the power of the northern white rhino. 

Britt Wray’s Rise of the Necrofauna (Greystone Books) is one of those whirlwind books that purports to be about one topic, but ends up taking you places you couldn’t have foreseen. In this case, the topic is the science of de-extinction: the process of resurrecting endangered species, à la Jurassic Park. This is something that’s actually going on, albeit in a less contrived fashion than in Steven Spielberg’s movie. Brilliant men and women around the world are trying to bring back the passenger pigeon, the wooly mammoth, and the white rhino, for reasons that have to do both with saving the world and entertaining human whimsy. As Wray, who co-hosts a podcast on BBC called Tomorrow's World, takes you through this weird field, she explains basic genetic engineering, the truly intimidating genitalia of elephants, the history of pigeon hunting, and almost everything else.   Sasha Chapin: One thing that struck me about this book is that, after I finished it, I knew a lot about de-extinction, but I wasn’t really sure what your personal opinion on it was. Do you have an overall for or against view? Is there a central emotion that sort of grips you? Britt Wray: My overall emotion is not what guides my work. What guides it is a deep curiosity. I was troubled by de-extinction, but that made me curious to discover the motivations of the scientists who are doing it, and who they are as fuller humans. I like looking at scientists as much more than just the science. I like to situate them in the messy human web that they’re swimming in. This is a field that's marching ahead certainly with or without me. I think what my work in this area can do is make a palate that the general public can taste from. There still is a general sense that science is exclusively for scientific people. But it's not. It's something we can all be involved in, and it’s something that we definitely all have a stake in, because we’re talking about a fundamental redesigning of a lot of the natural world.  Right, we’re all downstream here. We have scientists in rooms somewhere and once in awhile they totally change our landscape. You’re just trying get in front of that a little, and warn yokels like me about what’s going on.  Downstream is a helpful term, yeah. What I am trying to do is push the conversation a bit more upstream. De-extinction is one tiny slice of a much bigger panoply of work that’s dealing with redesigning natural systems. We are starting to do work on genetically modifying humans, and not only just for relieving people of disease states, but also potentially for genetic enhancement as well. I think it’s important for people to know about this. So you don’t consider it your role to adjudicate and decide whether de-extinction is moral or good. No, no, no. I don’t. I do feel absolutely uncomfortable saying that I’m pro-necrofauna and I’m not going to sell it in that way. What I’m trying to sell is a forum or an arena or some kind of agora where people can come and notice that there are so many issues here.  I do feel like I should probably have some take-home statement for people. And my take-home statement is that I’m not able to buy this de-extinction narrative that this simply makes the world a better place, that this can enhance biodiversity without taking away from biodiversity in major ways in other areas. If we’re going to see recreated woolly mammoths, that has benefits, but that also has violence and the violence is sometimes concealed. For example, if we do de-extinction with cloning, that means sacrificing a lot of animals along the way before cloning starts to work. You have to torture and probe and prod lots of animals. I don’t know about torture, but you do have to probe and prod animals to get their regenerative cells for cloning, as well as turn them into surrogate mothers, and often it just doesn’t work—embryos fail or animals die soon after they’re born. It seems like there’s this divided purpose with de-extinction. On the one hand, there are potentially noble motives here, related to conservation and so on. On the other hand, it’s like, passenger pigeons are really cool, let’s do that. Correct. And it’s interesting because it’s a double-edged sword. One of the scientists in the book, Thomas Gilbert, said, look, let’s resurrect the Christmas Island rat. It’s not exotic—we already understand the rat system so well that we can probably get what we want very quickly. But precisely because the Christmas Island rat didn’t have people power, it was shot down by the advocates in the room who wanted to create something spectacular because they’re aware of the PR value of resurrecting passenger pigeons. I mean, we’ve got lots of pigeons now, but we don’t have pigeons that flocked in the billions and disturbed the northeastern forests of the United States. That’s why the book is called Rise of the Necrofauna. It references Alex Steffen, the futurist, who said, “Are we only going to make charismatic necrofauna?” As in, maybe we shouldn’t just bring back these dead animals that make us feel good. How do we pick? It’s so arbitrary. Will we choose animals that cheer us up and let so many important beetles and rats remain extinct forever? Is there any particular animal or project that you’re sentimentally attached to? It seemed like you were rooting for the Northern White Rhino. Yeah, that would be my vote, if you’re allowing me to choose them as part of de-extinction. Because they are pretty much a dead species walking—they can’t reproduce naturally. But there is an ecosystem available for them. If it weren't for poachers they’d be able to live there. As well, I went and visited them, and I was duped by how powerful that was. In general, how optimistic are you about humanity’s ability to play god?  I get more dread than optimism. But I wouldn't want to shut it down. We’re facing a lot of crises, and we have to be innovative. But while we’re doing de-extinction, and geo-engineering, and other things, we haven’t stopped our industrialization practices and things that are despoiling the planet. We’re coming up with these solutions that are sometimes bandaids and don’t get at our issues at a root level.  So you’re sort of wary of human civilization becoming this sort of patchwork of temporary technological solutions.  And then there’s the idea that this planet is not going to be habitable, so let’s go to Mars. I find that a bit sad. You wish we’d just get along with this planet better. I wish, but I don’t see it happening. So as de-extinction progresses, do you think there’s going to be an emerging market for sort of designer animals, like fun little hyenas that can play with your kids?  Well, we already have GloFish—genetically engineered fish with bright blue or neon or orange pigmentation that isn't natural, so they’re all rainbow coloured in one little school and you can have it in your bowl. And we have cloning of dead pets. As long as you put your dead pet in fridge and get the cells out, you can have a company in South Korea recreate your favourite dead friend. And I think these things will ramp up and get more sophisticated. Do you think that’s a testing ground for weirder things we’re going to try on humans in the future? Yes. We’re already genetically modifying humans. And as these tools get sharpened in non-human animal work, it sharpens them for use in human cells. The sophistication allows all boats to rise together. Consider what we’ve seen with a tool like CRISPR. It was only discovered as a genetic engineering tool in 2012, but in five short years it’s gone from being an obscure technology to being absolutely ubiquitous. Even pretty low-grade labs use it. It’s like synthetic biology 101 now. Yeah, exactly. And it can penetrate every living platform from bacteria to plants to animals to humans. This is an opening, blossoming field with a lot of promise in terms of curing genetic disease. But It’s going to go way further than that. Way further. Especially with artificial intelligence coming into the bioinformatic space. We’re going to learn a lot more and at a faster rate. We don’t actually know a lot right now. At this point in time it still is very complicated to know what could code for some sort of phenotypic thing like super tall babies. So we’re potentially entering a feedback loop where machines that are smarter than us will examine our genome better than we could and tell us about how to reprogram ourselves to make us taller and stronger.  I think that might be the direction. There’s a really interesting company out of the University of Toronto that’s actually doing this, artificial intelligence for genomic analysis called deep genomics, and they’re kind of at the cusp of this stuff, but that’s the next step beyond the book. To be clear though, they’re not doing it for human enhancement. They’re doing it for medical insight. 
What Is Given, What Is Earned

Discovering the balance between grace and effort in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. 

The ending of my favorite children’s book is one many would call bittersweet: the heroine loses a power that made her special. Lyra Belacqua is the the protagonist of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, a trilogy of fantasy novels that retell John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Lyra could once interpret the symbols of the alethiometer, a compass-like device that reveals the truth. It is a rare and valuable gift. By the end of the series, it is a gift she no longer possesses. Lyra is afraid, and so she asks the angel Xaphania why she has lost the power. Xaphania’s answer is not satisfying. “You read it by grace, and you can regain it by work,” the angel responds—but it will take a lifetime. “But your reading will be even better then, after a lifetime of thought and effort, because it will come from conscious understanding. Grace attained like that is deeper and fuller than grace that comes freely, and furthermore, once you’ve gained it, it will never leave you.” “You mean a full lifetime, don’t you?” Lyra whispered. “A whole long life? Not…not just…a few years…” “Yes, I do,” said the angel. I was ten when I first read this passage, and to me, it was only just that such a gift would be revoked. I had long been taught the value of hard work and conscious understanding—from parents who preached that passion was unsustainable, from teachers who stressed that discipline will carry you when talent reaches its limit. That passage strengthened many of my deepest suspicions: that you have to pay your dues and suffer, that skill attained “after a lifetime of thought and effort” is the most valuable, and, crucially, that what comes freely is suspect because it can so easily be taken away. It's a reading that Pullman himself champions. Grace is the joy of innocence, he writes, while wisdom comes when we attain consciousness. Conscious understanding is a more difficult and uncomfortable state, but is to be prioritized because it is stable and true. I believed Pullman fully for a decade after I first memorized those words. Then I felt grace in a way I never had before. Terrified, I rejected it. In doing so, I realized the limits to what we can build on our own. * His Dark Materials is about the Fall. It reverses Paradise Lost into a story about a girl defying authority. Because it privileges secular knowledge and rationality, the series has been called atheism for kids. Little wonder, then, that grace is seen as suspect. In the simplest interpretation, grace is the gift, freely given, that you have done nothing to deserve. It is our salvation: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8). Pullman acknowledges its joy, but finds no comfort in what he calls “a mysterious quality which is inexplicable in its appearance and disappearance.” The mysterious, that which is outside the realm of the rational, is not to be trusted. Within his world, grace is linked to a conscious particle called Dust that powers the alethiometer. The Dust in turn is attracted to Lyra, twelve at the beginning of the series and innocent in her evaluation of the world. It helps her read the alethiometer’s cryptic symbols. Others study for years to have the least flash of insight, but Lyra needs only to “make [her] mind go clear” and “let [her] eyes find the right level.” There is no laborious cross-referencing of appendices, simply a mind gifted with all the answers. The clarity disappears when Lyra gains something else: love and sexual awakening. Of this, Pullman says that grace and innocence depart together, “but the fact that she can regain it through work and study symbolises the fact that only when we lose our innocence, can we take our first steps towards gaining wisdom.” Only when Lyra loses her innocence can she be wise. Yet the moment she becomes wise, the road ahead becomes more difficult. The theme of the burden of consciousness is an old one. Here, it’s rooted in “On the Marionette Theatre,” an essay by the German writer Heinrich von Kleist that Pullman has cited as inspiration. Marionettes move by intuition, dancing gracefully and with abandon. Humans, in contrast, are aware of our limitations and our place in the world; we know that others are watching and we know what it means to be dancing. Hampered by self-awareness, our movements are awkward. We lack the perfect innocence of the marionette, but we can replace it with the true skill of the dancer if we try. And, adds Pullman, “working toward that end should be a joyful action.” I do not disagree. But working toward the accumulation of conscious knowledge does not require the rejection of that which comes to us freely. * Henry and I met when we were twenty-one. After our first conversation, I wrote in my journal, “BE STILL MY FUCKING HEART.” But, below that, I wrote the Pullman passage on grace, a reminder that it is a sly, dangerous thing to be avoided, too good to be true. In the swirl of memories I have around that relationship, a simple one stands out: We were sitting on the bed, watching Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, only I wasn't really watching the movie, but watching him watching the movie—observing his face in silhouette, trying to memorize the way he laughed, thinking about how long his eyelashes were, and feeling a familiar one-two step of emotions: A deep happiness and then, a second later, a reeling in, a violent attempt to stop that happiness before it grew, because it could be taken away so easily. I had never been loved like that before. I had done nothing special to deserve it. It was a gift I could not rationalize and thus could not accept. Henry could reassure me, but love is not fully rational. No accounting of reasons seemed to truly explain why he cared for me—and if he couldn’t explain what bound him to me, then there was no way to trust it. It felt like a trick. The relationship ended. My next relationship was the model of conscious knowledge. We were an excellent match on paper. I used all my intelligence and strove to be kind and reasonable. There was work and there was love; there was never magic. When that, too, ended, I wondered where I had gone astray. I had forfeited the grace of passion for the stability of rationality, just as I thought Pullman had asked. I had distrusted the gift and put my faith in the work—what now? * But the ability to interpret the alethiometer is not the only example of grace. Lyra’s love for Will, and his for her, is also a gift, and one I believe she values more than the intuition that allows her to read symbols. Love is a form of grace that can defy conscious knowledge; this is known to anyone who has failed to love someone they know they should, or been loved and not understood why.  Even as romantic love triggers a loss of innocence, even as Lyra can no longer read the alethiometer, it opens a new world of possibility. After Lyra falls in love, she feels that “inside her, that rich house with all its doors open and all its rooms lit stood waiting, quiet, expectant.” The grace of love does not just restrict her world, it broadens it. The arrival of grace does come with a loss of innocence, because it forces us to see that so much of what happens is out of our control, and to let go of our childlike belief in our own power. It took more than a decade after first reading Pullman’s passage for me to finally understand how the privileging of conscious knowledge was, for me, a terribly self-serving belief. It centered myself and my own work ethic as master of the universe, helped me believe that I could control everything myself. It granted permission to self-abnegate and blinded me to half the joy of life, the things that come to us when we do not expect them. The Pullman passage claims that passions can be capricious and that deliberate effort, and work, can bring us to a level of understanding that skating by on pure feeling cannot. All this is true. But the refusal to both accept and value grace also rejects the knowledge that much of the world is out of our control, that you sometimes receive a gift you did not work for and sometimes are punished with hardships you do not deserve. * I wish I could make you see that System 1 doesn’t matter, my new lover once said, referring to a famous concept in psychology: System 1 is the automatic, the emotional, and the irrational way of being; System 2 the rational and controlled. I shrugged, changed the subject. He doesn’t quite realize that five years ago, ten years ago, I did believe precisely that System 1 didn’t matter and only existed to be overruled. No more; and I would come to realize that he didn’t truly believe in this either. There must be both systems, grace and work—both the feeling that is an unbidden gift and, simultaneously, the commitment to thought and effort. Grace alone is not enough; neither is the decision to want most what you should. Going forward, I will look, and ask, for both.
The Last Days of the Leather Fortress

For a decade, the BDSM site Kink.com has filmed scenes for its more than 50,000 members in a hundred-year-old armory in downtown San Francisco. This year, the final erotic frames were shot on the premises.

Mickey Mod and I are walking around the San Francisco Armory basement late one February night. We’re both staying here to participate in the last week of Kink.com film production that will be taking place in this building. The BDSM-themed porn company, also known as Cybernet Entertainment, has owned the 200,000-square-foot historic landmark fortress for ten years. During that time, they have shot approximately eleven thousand hardcore sex scenes within its brick walls. Every available room and in-between space is piled with the fetish costumes, outrageously high-heeled shoes, sinister customized props, and other ephemera that employees have claimed. It reminds me of an apartment the day before roommates move out, except instead of appliances, people are putting masking tape labels on rubber tongue fucking machines and olive green latex military uniforms. Just beyond a cart stacked high with vintage encyclopedias is a large disco ball resting in a metal hydrotherapy bath. A collection of rusty chains has been piled into a wheelchair. If the Armory is haunted, I could imagine the ghosts trapped here finding all this poltergeist-ing material a little on the nose.  Mickey knows his way around better than I do. He shot his first scene as a Kink model in 2009 and has been one of their most consistent male stars ever since. He’s a tall, slender, down-to-earth man with a very dependable nine-inch cock.  Mickey flips the heavy light switches just inside a set called the Gimp Room. Many of the rooms are some variation on this dungeon design: wooden floors, custom crosses and stockades, chains hanging from the ceiling. Much of the atmosphere comes from the building’s natural decrepitude, while some elements have been customized for either decor, like false electrical boxes, or functionality, like the many o-ring tie off points available to the bondage-rigging directors. There’s a seven-foot-tall metal cage built into the wall, which opens up into another set, the Training Room. Walking through this cage, I feel like I’m in a dream, or a dream sequence, where each threshold leads to a completely different environment. My boots echo on the concrete floor as we head down another hallway, past a venetian blind-covered window that peeks into a noirish office, to a vast pillar-lined cavern called The Roman Baths, past which is a phony wooden sauna with swinging doors that open into a locker room. Next is the Abattoir, a serial killer slaughterhouse complete with prop pig carcass hanging from siding hooks. Beyond that is a room containing an enormous boiler. “There’s lots of rooms here meant to look like a sinister place you might be taken to," Mickey says. "But this is the one that makes me feel like if I was brought here, no one would ever hear from me again.” We make a loop through the Shooting Range, groundwater from MIssion Creek running through the cavernous space. It’s rooms like these, where the dusty air gives me an instant asthma attack, where the foundations seem close to crumbling and the walls are slimy with water stains, that remind me this building is over one hundred years old. If it had been purchased for any purpose other than making highly dramatic dungeon movies, rooms like this probably would have been redeveloped by now.  They might, in fact, be redeveloped very soon. * The history of Kink.com is well-told at this point. CEO Peter Acworth’s grad school dorm room experiments with bondage films. A late-1990s Internet environment primed for successful niche membership sites. Then, in 2006, the purchase of the National Guard Armory and Arsenal at 14th and Mission, a historical landmark which had stood mostly unused for decades. In an out-of-the-way prop supply room that could be mistaken for a Salvation Army, Mickey and I come across a stack of photo stills printed on 9 x 12 inch gator board, analog evidence of Kink.com’s early days. In one of these pictures, a woman, naked except for a leather waist cincher, stands in five-inch chunky-heeled black pumps with her opaque white thigh-high stockinged legs apart. Her ankles are tied with white rope, the ends of which disappear, taut, out of either side of the frame. Another length of rope attached to two dumbbell weights wraps between her naked vulva. Her hands are attached above her head to suspension cuffs, so called because the straps run along the wrist and palms, putting less pressure on joints than simple circular cuffs. She is wearing a red ballgag from which several straps wrap along her eyes, partially obscuring her identity. A rod is attached to her breasts by nipple clamps. Behind this model, a slender pale man wearing jeans but no shirt crouches, holding what may be a vibrator between her legs. The man is wearing a simple black mask that covers his entire face. “That’s Peter’s old garage,” says Mickey. Indeed, in the background, which you would be forgiven for not noticing right away, is a washer and dryer. “And that’s definitely Peter,” he says, pointing to the man in the mask. * The first Kink.com site I modeled for was Wired Pussy, which is now called Electro Sluts. The same year, 2009, I was also cast in Men In Pain, which is now called Divine Bitches. I was very proud to be on Kink as both a submissive, struggling in an electricity-conducting copper cage while Lorelei Lee sat on my face, and as a dominant in a red latex bra, strap-on fucking Danny Wilde in the ass. My sex-work life at the time was all over the place, in dungeon studios and hotel rooms around the Bay Area, switching outfits and personas, catering to the varied taste of an endless stream of men. The Armory was, for me and many other people I knew, a single destination to make dependable money. It was intimidating but welcoming. The work I did there was usually more intense than the average “direct service” client session, but it paid more, on a legit W9 tax form. Plus, I was playing with other sex workers who had more skills and generally got me wetter than my clients did. Mickey and I climb four flights of marble stairs—past the second floor talent lounge and cam show rooms, past the third floor which is mostly devoted to tech and marketing offices—to The Upper Floor, the top level that has been modeled after an Edwardian mansion. He points to a particular room and we tease each other fondly about a Public Disgrace shoot a few years back, where he fucked me on that pool table in front of a crowd. Lorelei, who was directing, had brought me in at the last minute as a submissive model. I amazed myself that day with how much attention I could demand and money I could make by navigating erotic overstimulation.  At the end of the shoot, Lorelei gathered me up in a terrycloth robe, looked deep into my eyes and said, “You're a superstar.” It was at this, after hours of willfully submitting to negotiated degradation and pain, that I burst into tears of relief. The performance of objectification didn’t make me feel vulnerable: being praised by a powerful woman did. Lorelei understood that no matter how much good we do in our lives, women don’t know if we are enough. For some of us, the overdetermined melodramatic glamour of BDSM work is our refuge from uncertainty. Like the joke goes, porn is the only job that you only have to do once to be a star. *  Friday, February 24, 2017 was the last day hardcore porn was filmed at the San Francisco Armory.  Both Matt Slusarenko, the director of marketing and business development, and Alison Boden, the vice president of technology and operations, explained the decision to me as primarily a business one. While much of the Armory is used for Cybernet offices and production, there is plenty of untapped potential to the space. The 40,000-square-foot Drill Court can host sports, music, dance, and theater events. Numerous rooms could be rented to startup offices; one could easily imagine entire floors transformed into trendy co-working spaces. Securing permits for this kind of re-zoning starts to present conflicts, however, such as the California law prohibiting alcohol sale in an establishment that also provides fully nude entertainment. I was told many stories about vendors revoking contracts when they caught so much as a glimpse of leather or nudity, and some potentially lucrative clients that simply refused outright to do business with a space in which BDSM porn is filmed. This despite the fact that you could definitely spend the entire day in the building and never know a hardcore film shoot was underway beyond the blinking red partition lights. Considering, however, that the 2016 Republican Party platform declared porn a “public health crisis” and that the box office success of the Fifty Shades franchise hasn’t reduced institutionalized stigma against BDSM practice, many businesses simply prefer to segregate themselves from adult entertainment. Few mainstream companies see the value of preserving sex subcultural history, even as their brands enjoy the edgy weirdness of San Francisco. Still others see Kink’s content as an outright nuisance. When Acworth moved Kink operations to the Armory in early 2007, members of the local community protested them as a morally corrupting force. Most of the accusations from the Mission Armory Community Collective, such as Cybernet creating “dead end jobs,” were baseless, ultimately perpetuating the very stigma they feared. It is in response to this kind of hand-wringing that Kink.com has made their sexual values explicit, largely unheard of in porn companies of their size. As of this writing, Kink.com has approximately fifty thousand paying site members.  Their mission—To demystify and celebrate alternative sexualites by providing the most ethical and authentic kinky adult entertainment—is prominently displayed on the site and in the public parts of the Armory. Every Kink scene, including every free trailer, begins and ends with an interview with the models, emphasizing the consent, interests, and boundaries of the submissive performer. Community tours, which are led daily throughout the building, combine Mission history with frank discussions of the dynamics of BDSM. No other porn company has ever housed its production, talent, IT, marketing, and management departments in the same building. Slusarenko tells me that the thing he’ll miss the most is “seeing a database engineer talking to a dominatrix about selling her content. It doesn’t exist anywhere else.” The company is hardly without dysfunction, but their centralization is tied to their transparency. In my vision of a post-decriminalization America, more sex work would be done in such places: physical locations with the possibility of community for the workers and accountability for the management. Not a utopia, just a realistic adult business in every sense of the word. So in some ways, the Armory’s imposing physical presence has been a stalwart icon of a fading San Francisco, the queer mecca whose leather shops and dyke bars are shuttering under pressure of a thriving tech economy. Yet in other ways, they are leaving because they were never fully embraced there in the first place. Kink.com, then, finds itself between a neighborhood rock and an ideological hard place. Another battle facing Cybernet is the ongoing question of model safety and how it’s defined. The regulation of condom use in the California porn industry has been the subject of a contentious legal and political battle in recent years. In 2012, Measure B passed in Los Angeles, requiring the use of condoms in all porn videos shot in that county. In 2016, Proposition 60 would have expanded that law statewide; however, it was rejected by voters. The majority of working porn performers oppose condom regulations for many reasons: they trust their own Talent Testing Service to keep them aware of their STI status, and they assert that prolonged performative sex under hot lights dramatically alters the efficacy and comfort of barrier protection. The co-author of Prop 60 is Michael Weinstein, President of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, who has poured years of resources into mandating condoms in porn, while inviting the ire of other HIV advocacy organizations for, among other gaffes, dismissing PrEP as a “party drug.”  Weinstein has specifically targeted Kink.com in his efforts to introduce legislation ostensibly designed for performer safety, despite the fact that organizations such as the Free Speech Coalition, the trade association for the adult film industry, have consistently opposed these regulations. Maybe this is because of the extreme nature of Kink’s content, or the fact that they work with many “crossover” performers who shoot in straight, gay, and trans genres. Or it might be because almost every Kink video was obviously shot on an Armory set.  Ironically, the centralized nature that establishes obvious protections to workers—accountability, familiarity, consistency—also make the company a sitting duck for those who oppose it. Kink has spent countless hours and resources on fighting these forces: one estimate I was given approached a million dollars in a few short years. They’re proud of their victories, like a hearing last February where Cal-OSHA rejected proposed condom mandate legislation after five hours of passionate testimony from adult performers. But they are weary, too.  * “Now that I’ve gotten off on my filmmaking,” Maitresse Madeline Marlowe announces, “the boys are allowed to come, too!”  It’s 5:45 p.m. on Friday. I’ve been watching Madeline and her crew prepare and shoot non-sex content all day. Two scenes of innuendo, mostly to establish the Twin Peaks parody plot and characters. I ask a few people if they think this production value makes a difference to the members who will jerk off to the sex, or if it’s mostly for Madeline’s directorial satisfaction. Everyone agrees it’s the latter, but no one seems particularly annoyed. Even the male talent, who have been lounging around since 11 a.m., accept this as part of the experience of working for Kink.com. They look at their phones, they nap, they mutter their lines under their breath until they’ve memorized them. Will Havoc, one of the performers, who is also Madeline’s real-life romantic partner and production assistant, tells me that the men know not to get into any serious conversations. They basically have to hurry up and wait to be bored for hours until the women decide they’re ready for them. Madeline wiggles out of her velvet costume dress and maroon stilettos, pulling on cotton leggings, flats, and a T-shirt that declares, in white letters on black background, the name of the website she’s shooting today: HARDCORE GANGBANG. A Kink.com gangbang is a group of men having sex with one woman; the site’s tagline is “Where all women’s hardcore gangbang fantasies come true.” On Hardcore Gangbang—which was originally called Bound Gangbang when it was started in 2011 by Princess Donna Dolore—the focus is on the woman. Practically, this means the woman is the bottom, the one who is penetrated, the recipient of any erotic pain or erotic humiliation. It also means that everything from the website copy to the script is centered on the fulfillment of the female performer’s desire.  Amber Ivy, a 23-year-old performer who got her start in the industry three years ago on the tattooed alt girl site Burning Angel, has a look like Jessica Rabbit combined with a very pretty bird. She is slender and creamy-skinned with big breasts and big eyes. After being booked for this shoot, she emailed Madeline requesting a Twin Peaks theme. She wanted to be Audrey Horne so much that she made her own costume, sewing red fluff onto a snow-white lace robe and hot-glueing a dozen red bows with craft pearls to her white corset. The Kink costume department set her up with white opaque stockings decorated with black aces and red spades. With her long cascading maroon hair and tattoos, she doesn’t really resemble the actress Sherilyn Fenn, but her look is pure brothel chintzy cheesecake.  Tommy Pistol, a natural goofball, is perfectly cast as psychiatrist Dr. Jacoby in his Hawaiian shirt and different-colored sunglasses. Will is playing Bobby Briggs, wearing a short-sleeve shirt over a long-sleeve thermal and another plaid shirt tied around his waist. He didn’t put his usual product in his hair, and it flops around, giving him the perfect '90s dirtbag look. Owen Grey, thin as a rail, is James Hurley in aviator sunglasses and motorcycle boots. Jon Jon plays Leo Johnson in a lumberjack shirt, and Mickey is sleazy Ben Horne in a blazer which he constantly shakes off his shoulders as he chomps on a cigar. These outfits do exactly what a group Halloween costume should: separately, you wouldn’t peg any individual character, but together it’s delightfully obvious who is supposed to be who. The night before, eating sandwiches in our pajamas in the talent lounge, I had asked Amber what she was excited about for the shoot. She told me confidently that she loves group sex, but that she’s never done an on-camera gangbang before.  [[{"fid":"6701936","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"}}]] “I think being the focal point is the charm of it all,” she grins. She was nervous about taking dicks in her vagina and ass at the same time, but was looking forward to working with a company that understands “in a BDSM scene, the power comes from the bottom.”  It’s a tight squeeze on set: me, the camera woman Minako, the production assistant Rhia, Madeline, a reporter from Vice, the five male performers, and Amber. All of the porn stars are given their own robe, flip flops, and a reusable water bottle with their stage name written in Sharpie on masking tape. The set dressers have arranged a carefully surreal tableau. A blue strobe light flutters above our heads. There are several taxidermied deer, one of which is sticking out of an ornate toilet, and an expressionless white mannequin. There’s a vintage ‘50s TV, an ancient metal table fan, and a number of pink flamingos. A concrete buttress angles up into the ceiling; according to the building’s tour guide, this was originally the primary support for a thousand pound artillery rifle. Madeleine gathers the performers and crew to review Amber’s limits from the forms she filled out that morning. She doesn’t like nipple pain and she doesn’t want her face slapped. At her request, this is a no condom shoot. Every performer has submitted their required STI test, which is no more than two weeks old. Her safewords are yellow and red. I glance over at Tommy, who is sitting in a dark corner. I’ve been around so many sex toys all week that I think he is holding a dildo in his lap. It takes me a moment to realize he has his actual dick out of his pants and is slowly stroking himself, staring into the middle distance. This is the first moment of actual explicit sex I’ve witnessed in my week at the Armory and I’m surprised how jarring it is to me. The crew does a couple of takes in which Tommy drags a struggling Amber into the light. Mickey rips gaffer tape off her mouth, which looks like duct tape but doesn’t hurt or mess up her lipstick. Owen steps forward, holding Amber’s chin in his hand, and delivers his line from Madeline’s script in a perfect angsty teen tone. “Sometimes riding on my motorcycle into the night, I punch off the headlights and roll the throttle and just rocket blind into the dark. I’m going to do the same with your tight virgin cunt.” Tommy pushes Amber down, where she kneels on a pad that has been hidden underneath the rug. While the crew preps the shot, she throws her head back and spreads her knees wide. The men gather around her. She starts putting dicks in her mouth before Madeline can call action again. [[{"fid":"6701941","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 Kink.com gangbang is a formulaic ritual. Blowbang, vaginal, anal, double penetration, pop shot. The men have their moves, they know how this goes. Minako knows when to go for a wide, medium, close up on genitals, closeup on face, POV from the guys, POV from the the girl. She climbs with her camera onto an applebox, confidently towering over the men in her Vans sneakers and jeans. Only Amber has never done this before. “Just let go,” says Madeline. “Tommy will support you from behind.” “And I’ll support you emotionally!” Will jokes and everyone laughs. “Let’s get her on the fuckbox!” Madeline yells. The boys drag a large wooden box covered in leather cushioning under the lights and hoist the now-naked Amber onto her back. I start to become aware of certain well-practiced moves. The energy of the men is always directed heterosexually towards the woman but their work is distinctly, even homosocially, collaborative. An arm around her torso. A knee bracing her hips. Holding her open for the camera and one another. They remove their pants but put their shoes back on for traction. Mickey starts rhythmically sliding his hand along his own waist, and it takes me a second to realize he’s wiping lube off so he can keep a grip on Amber’s ankles as he fucks her. Will slaps Amber in the face and she says quickly and loudly, “No, I don’t like that.” “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I completely forgot.” Will steps back. Amber gasps. “We can keep going.” But Madeline says, “No, no, I know what face slapping does.” The shoot pauses for a minute while the men back off and Rhia gets Amber tissues and water. Owen lays on the floor and stares at the ceiling, edging himself. Will checks his phone with one hand while holding his erection in the other. Amber requests an off-camera warm-up for anal sex. Mickey asks what position she’d prefer. “Can we spoon?” Everyone else takes five while Mickey and Amber climb onto the fuckbox. They both lie on their right sides as Mickey rubs silicon lube on his cock and slides it inside of her. They are facing away from me but I can see him whispering in her ear and holding her gently. After a few minutes she says she’s ready. As I watch Amber straddle Will while Tommy fucks her ass, I remember how nervous she was about being double-penetrated. Now she seems both ravenous and relaxed, comfortably letting the men flip her on her back, on her stomach, on her knees. This might be the right time to acknowledge that gangbangs are my go-to masturbation material. When I watch this genre of porn, I always identify with the woman as a complete object of desire and an object that completely desires. I’m in awe of what her body can do. I had expected to be distractedly turned on, but my arousal has been replaced by wonder. Madeline has established a choreographed sequence repeated over and over, because both novelty and familiarity drive the business of desire. In this sequence, the subjectivity of the woman is meticulously established precisely so that she can give herself over to abandon. The negotiation, the trained crew, the paperwork, the plot conceit—these preparations are like bungee jumping harnesses, like an acrobat’s net, like telling someone where you’ll be when you go on a hike or a Tinder hookup. They don’t create a completely safe space and they don’t pretend to guarantee that. They create a risk-aware environment, mitigating for worst case scenarios, in which everyone agrees that the risk is worth it because the rewards—the honest money, the ecstatic experience, the pride in making subversive erotic art—can’t be achieved without risk. Madeline has the sex footage she needs, so it’s time for the pop shot, or money shot. The guys take turns ejaculating on Amber’s face. Their control and timing is breathtaking. The next morning over coffee, Madeline will tell me that the thing the members love most is seeing the girl “destroyed.” When I press on her what she means, she describes the way that Amber went from a pristine, smiling young woman in a costume she sewed herself to a gasping, sweaty, smeared, open, ecstatic mess. “They love to see her looking like a toaster strudel,” Madeline laughs. But here’s the thing: Amber is not literally destroyed by this gangbang. She is not damaged. Wrapped in her cozy robe for her on-camera recap, she says, “There’s so much adrenaline in me right now!” Three hours later, after a shower and some whiskey and a vegetarian burrito, she’s dancing gleefully to Amy Winehouse at the bar. Tomorrow she’s getting on a flight back to LA and moving apartments. Exactly one week later she will tweet: Remember those Nerds Ropes candy? That was my jam. It’s 8:10 p.m. A crowd of staff members and porn stars burst onto our set ready to celebrate the final night at the Armory. They’ve been drinking champagne and eating catered chicken wings and crackers and grapes and cubes of cheese on the Speakeasy set, which tonight is functioning as a real bar. Most of the liquor bottles are props filled with water, and everyone who wants a drink has to open a bottle and sniff it to determine if it’s real or not. *  Saturday morning, February 25, is likely the last time I’ll ever wake up at the Armory. I get enviable sleep when I spend the night in the talent department dorms: my room has a queen-sized bed, no windows, and the kind of deep silence that seems to go on forever, like a tomb. The communal bathroom floors and counters are the same marble as the stairs and bannisters, white with tie-dye veins of grey. These shelves, like every bathroom in the building, are stocked with industrial-sized jugs of Dr. Bronner's liquid tea tree soap, yellow toothbrushes with bristles so soft they press up against your gums, burn-inducing navy blue plastic razors, mint toothpaste, mint shave gel that looks exactly like the toothpaste, rows of fleet enema kits with orange tips like traffic cones, and stacks and stacks of big black fluffy towels. The floor-length urinals always seem like they’re standing at attention, waiting. I head downstairs, out into the neighborhood seeking coffee. On the first floor landing is a life-sized photograph of Lorelei and Madeline. They’re dressed in severe business attire, lounging on a pile of $84,000 in real cash like two femme domme Scrooge McDucks, gleefully relishing their deserved fortune. Although there’s no explicit nudity in the picture, Lorelei tells me that renters often ask for it to be covered during their events.  “It represents the physical power of actual cash, which is simultaneously, absurd, utterly constructed, and absolutely real,” she texts me. It was originally taken to celebrate an auction the two women held in 2014, for which an anonymous man paid $42,000 to each of them for a one hour cam show, which he never claimed. “I think people are very threatened by that photo,” Lorelei adds. Through the wood framed glass front doors, I walk down twelve marble stairs to three long concrete steps on Mission Street. You actually have to look both ways when you exit lest you collide with the teenagers endlessly filming each other grinding their skateboards along the steps, which they call 3 Up 3 Down. It’s been raining most of the week but now it’s so bright and warm I barely need my hoodie. From the outside, the Armory is an imposing Moorish fortress. Bricks from the original Western Addition Armory—which was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake—jut out from the rest of the structure, making tempting climbing holds for show-off drunks. If you walk west on 14th Street, you pass a gas station, a biker bar, and a dissonant combination of brightly-painted Victorian rowhouses and sleek generic new condos. Turning left on Valencia, you pass pretty much all the clichéd markers of gentrification including a spacious yoga studio and a cafe where a macchiato with homemade almond milk is more than five dollars and also definitely totally delicious. Turning left again, heading east back to Mission street, you won’t fail to notice the congregation of a different kind of San Franciscan. Tent cities are set up like modern Hoovervilles and people are openly smoking crack on the sidewalk. Folks stand on trash cans, screaming about salvation. I stare up at the flags fluttering on the Armory’s turrets: the American stars and stripes, the rising brown phoenix of San Francisco, the rainbow of gay pride, and the black and blue beneath the red heart of leather pride. The final reasons for the end of production here, which many people would tell me only off the record, were along the lines of, “Peter is tired of fighting,” “Peter is trying to get his kid into pre-school,” “Peter is going through a divorce,” and “Peter is burned out on fetish porn.” According to employees, some days Acworth says he wants to preserve Armory rooms for sex parties, and the next he’ll demand everything with the signature red “K” be stripped down. One day he’ll say he wants to mount a traveling art exhibit of props and devices, the next that everything should just be put on the street. One thing is clear: the screams of catharsis, the ingenuity of predicament bondage, the collaboration of devious queer minds will no longer fill the rooms and hallways of the Armory. Beyond that, the future of Kink.com is still unwritten.
‘People Like to Watch Feminism as a Spectacle’: An Interview with Lauren McKeon

The author of F-Bomb discusses men’s rights activists, the changes in modern feminism, and why the movement can’t be a monolith. 

Decades from now, when humans not yet born scroll the archives of feminism in 2017, it will be easy to envision an era of unity—the #womensmarch hashtag on Instagram boasts 1,437,462 tagged photos, “The Future is Female” slogan has re-proliferated everywhere from baby onesies to New York Fashion Week.  Women’s marches around the world crammed the streets with feminists of all genders last winter, even men who aren’t actually feminists but say they are because it’s cool for them to do that now. According to Ivanka Trump, her father is a feminist. But as author Lauren McKeon boldly uncovers in F-Bomb: Dispatches from the War on Feminism (Goose Lane Editions), as both a concept and a function, feminism is in pieces. McKeon, a Toronto-based journalist, spent three years investigating the women-led anti-feminism movement, tracing back to its origins and doggedly interrogating the movement’s current resurgence. Though for as long as there’s been feminism there has been anti-feminism, too, the backlash at the heart of the matter stems from the first wave of the men’s rights movement, which began in the 1970s. MRAs—women among them—“cringed at the idea of women with autonomy” and protested the demasculinization of men, hoping instead to preserve traditional gender roles. “The same rhetoric was re-emerging, only now it was wilder, and, also, everywhere,” writes McKeon of the present day. “Social media allows the ideas underpinning both anti-feminism and post-feminism (the idea that we’re past the need for feminism) to spread and to connect, and the anti-feminist movement—and its many octopus arms—have grown beyond the usual suspects.” F-Bomb is an awakening for those who believe feminism serves everyone equally. As McKeon notes, there are valid reasons for opting out. But it’s also an alarming peek into the lives of women who fiercely impugn the need for gender equality at all, women who feel feminism has instituted moral panic around rape culture, encouraged the hatred of men and boys, that it has limited women’s potential by portraying them as perpetual victims, that it has interfered with tradition and that it has devalued motherhood. The book is an intense and enlightening inquisition, not just as a corrective for future generations who will gaze upon the Instagramability of our righteousness, but for those recalibrating the meaning of feminism right now. Carly Lewis: You write that many feminists, upon learning of your research, questioned your pursuit with a sense of “curiosity akin to a five-year-old studying an especially nasty bug.” I’ll admit that I went into your book feeling… something like that. Lauren McKeon: I’ve gotten that a lot. By humanizing someone they almost become scarier. I wanted to humanize these people—though I don’t know if humanize is quite the right word—and really talk to them, and see what they were like and what they really believed and why that was. If you think these movements are just full of monsters… well, monsters don’t exist. It’s very easy to dismiss a monster and think that the ideas of monsters won’t connect, that they won’t gain traction and won’t infiltrate policy or thinking or media. It’s harder to grapple with the fact that these people go to their kids’ soccer games and go to book clubs and go to work. There’s a point in the book where two women tech executives stand in the kitchen of a start-up and deny that the industry has a gender imbalance. You deftly note that their office has more foosball tables than women. What impact did this process have on you personally? Three years is a long time to spend with people who fundamentally oppose your principles, especially when you’re with them as a journalist, not an opponent who can speak freely. I’d had a hunch that these ideas were bubbling up of course, but it was watching them unfold in real time and seeing how much traction anti-feminist thinking has really gained, and how pervasive it is and how normalized it’s become that made me tired. It also made me curious, and it made me more convinced that we need to shine a spotlight on what’s happening as opposed to trying to pretend it doesn’t exist. Did you see Tina Fey’s Weekend Update appearance where she suggested that if we just let violent white supremacists tire themselves out in Washington Square Park they’d go away? I understand the machination of compartmentalizing, but doing so in this case seems like giving them permission. That’s a lot of what we have been doing, just talking amongst ourselves. (I mean people who are progressive.) There’s value in commiserating together, and poking fun at the other side, but at some point we have to realize that there are real effects to what’s going on. We can’t just eat our proverbial cake and hope that it’s going to go away. It’s not as if it came out of nowhere. We shouldn’t have been ignoring it. Early in the book you write, “Though dissent isn’t inherently terrible, it’s hard to understate how much of it is fracturing us.” How do you write a book like this while knowing it will contribute to the fracture? It’s so thorny to speak out. By speaking out I could be contributing to the fracture, by speaking out I’m also contributing to the elevation of white women’s voices, by speaking out I’m also shining a spotlight on the alt-right and anti-feminist movements. There are arguments to be made for not doing so. But what I hope the effect of speaking out will be is to present a thoughtful, considered, well-researched argument. I hope that people will continue the discussion. I think that’s what we need right now, to talk more, and to get off of our soapboxes. That’s a lot of what contributes to the fracturing: people want to be right. They don’t necessarily want to listen, and they don’t want to self-reflect. They don’t want to be open to criticism. It’s really hard to get anywhere when that’s happening. We’re in the age of bullshit. People are just bullshitting each other. I hope part of the antidote to that will be having a conversation. And that will mean listening. I also couldn’t possibly talk about the anti-feminist movement without talking about and self-reflecting on the feminist movement. It’s important for us to do that, too. That’s how feminism itself will grow and become more inclusive and get better and relate to more women. It needs to go through the same process of interrogation. Are you familiar with Carla Lonzi and the Rivolta Femminile? Lonzi’s ideas were about connection through disparity. There are some parallels between Lonzi and what you’re saying, I think. What were you able to conclude after speaking with so many women whose ideologies did not mirror your own? This is not an argument that is unique to me, but we need to move toward a plurality of feminism. Women are not monolithic. Feminism can’t be monolithic either. If we allow for that plurality of feminism, we can work apart but together. We’re all affected by the same issues, but we’re not affected equally by those issues. The feminist movement hasn’t done a great job of acknowledging this. We really need to chip away at that. Feminism is going through a round of growing pains right now, and some of that is clumsy and some of that is awkward. But we are moving toward something that’s better. Part of what made me optimistic even after spending a lot of time talking to people who made me worried about our future was talking to other young women, and girls, and seeing where they’re taking the movement and how they’re making it more inclusive. There’s a lot that’s going on that I don’t like, like the mass-marketing of feminism, and how it’s cool to wear a feminist T-shirt but it’s not cool to actually have politics, but there is this new movement that’s being forged by the next generation—it is smart, savvy, inclusive and diverse. That’s just how they see the world. And that makes me feel positive. I work in arts and culture media, and I am full of joy about the generation of young women writers coming up after mine. Things that it took me ten years to decline on—cowering to misogynistic paternalism, the anxiety of not being liked—they seem to reject right away. I see them advocating for themselves much sooner, which is incredible to behold. I want them to take over. At the same time, I don’t know that I, or we, collectively, have done enough to make the media industry safe for them to inherit. I agree with you. I don’t know that we have. Part of me wonders if the reason why they’re so good at standing up for themselves is because it’s been thrust upon them. Maybe that’s a cynical way of thinking about it, but in my conversations with teen girls it’s become clear they are dealing with horrible, horrific things—being grabbed in the hallway, having "slut" shouted at them. And that’s normal to them; they expect that as a normal part of life that they have to learn how to navigate. That’s the other side of them being so engaged with these issues. As much as I’m optimistic, on the other hand, teens have to deal with [sexism] in a much more extreme, intense way than I did. It’s not that that culture didn’t exist back then, but people weren’t sharing nudes on Instagram. People didn’t have cell phones in school, or social media. It wasn’t such a pervasive part of our lives. We were still slut-shamed of course but it wasn’t happening in the magnified, intense way that it is now. So you think it’s to survive that they’ve become so bold? Right, and that’s sad. That’s a lot more depressing than thinking the next generation has it, but it’s also true. Our generation and the generation above us, we were so busy trying to get a foot in the door that we put up with a lot. “We’re so happy to be here!” It’s only now that we’re starting to realize being here isn’t enough. In the book you mention a 2014 interview in which Lana Del Rey says feminism is uninteresting. I interviewed her a few months ago and asked her about that. As she tells it, it was a response blurted out after feeling somewhat antagonized by the guy interviewing her. It was her way of rejecting the expectation that she have an opinion about feminism at all. I wonder if others who find feminism unnecessary—and I don’t mean those who reject it because it doesn’t serve them, I mean those who dismiss it—also do so out of exasperation. Feminism is still a dirty word for a lot of people. In some ways being able to say you’re a feminist is courageous, sure, but it’s also privileged. (If you’re Justin Trudeau, what do you have to lose from calling yourself a feminist?) Especially now that it’s cool again to be a feminist. But of course some people don’t want to say they’re a feminist, because they’re afraid of what other labels come with that. They’re afraid of being labeled something that they aren’t. On one hand, I think that’s fair. On the other hand, I worry about where that gets us. Neutrality can be dangerous when it comes to not speaking up. You’re also sending a message when you say you’re not a feminist, or when you refuse to engage with the politics. Who gets left behind when we’re too scared to engage? Or when we just don’t think it matters to us? I heard some good reasons from people regarding why they didn’t call themselves feminists, from people who felt the movement actively excludes them or is violent towards them—a lot of trans women and women of colour, sex workers. But the reasons for opting out are a lot different from the people who are just like, “yeah, it’s not for me.” I think there’s a diligently achieved self-made state of denial at play sometimes, in the latter cases where privileged women denounce feminism because it just doesn’t matter to them. That’s a very good way of putting it. I also wonder if it comes from an attempt to get on the good side of the oppressor. In the case of someone like Faith Goldy, for example, and the well known online anti-feminists you write about in your book, money has a lot to do with it. But psychologically I have to wonder if there’s safety in being like, the world is so unsafe that I’m just going to ingratiate myself to the most dangerous kind of men, so that I become exempt from their harm. It’s certainly individualistic. “I’m okay, so everyone else is okay.” I wonder sometimes if that’s their response to pressure. The practice of trying to do anything and everything can be exhausting. The system is against us in so many ways. Part of me thinks that the response is a survival mechanism, to get in, to get along and succeed and just pretend that the rest doesn’t exist. There’s something pornographic about anti-feminism. It’s salacious and attractive to certain kinds of men. There’s a transaction of subordination exchanged between the two sides, just like in any performance. Right, they’re each fulfilling the status quo goals of gender. When we look at people who are the most successful, they’re either not going against the grain or they’re going against the grain in ways that are attractive. Most people who are successful are playing out a very status quo goal of gender and what we expect, and yeah, for sure that becomes a transaction where they each expect and get success based on the ways we’re traditionally supposed to complement each other. I thought of this a lot during the Jian Ghomeshi trial. There was a conversation around how nuanced and complicated and difficult it seemed for a strong female lawyer, Marie Henein, to represent a man accused of sexual assault. But wasn’t she doing exactly what would be expected of the law? She didn’t do anything during that case that fascinated or surprised me. She used the same tactics that are always used to discredit accusers. Ultimately it was status quo. It wasn’t necessarily her that was the problem. Like you said, it’s the system, and that we were expecting justice for survivors in the court system at all. There are so many layers to it, but they all got pinned on her because she was the one out there performing the role. We expect everything and nothing from women. In the book, you reference something Canadian men’s rights activist Karen Straughan said to you, which is that feminism is designed to make men feel awful. I latched onto this, because in some ways feminism makes me feel awful. A peer of mine recently tweeted a joke about sexual assault. I’ve crafted three different emails to this guy to try and talk to him about it, but I keep relenting. I don’t want to embarrass him. I don’t want him to turn on me. I don’t want to be seen as a problem. The burden goes the other way, too. (My earlier comments about not cowering are waning here, I realize.) Absolutely. I’ve heard so many of my friends say, “I’m the feminist in the office,” “I’m the one who always speaks up,” and that’s a huge burden. There’s social pressure on women to be likable. That’s how we make it in the world. And when you’re speaking out, you’re not likable. You are instantly not likable when you speak out. Or you have to try and think about saying it in the right way to maintain likability but still get your point across. It’s exhausting. In a world where it is still unpopular to live your feminist politics, of course there’s a burden on you for speaking out, because you never know what the answer is going to be. But it’s okay to be scared, as a feminist. It’s okay to be worried about getting yelled at, or having a Twitter hoard come after you, or being doxxed, or belittled in front of your office or to have someone call you a bitch. We put this onus on ourselves to be so tough. But it can be exhausting and frustrating and heartbreaking sometimes to be a feminist. We tell women and girls they can be anything they want, but when you try to be that thing there are so many different constraints—you can’t be emotional, and you can’t be too ambitious, and you can’t be too loud, can’t be too angry, you can’t speak out too much. You can be anything you want, as long as you’re not trying to force your way into a male-dominated industry. This idea that you can be anything really comes with a lot of contradictory footnotes. On that level I understand why some women reject the burden. Actually a lot of men’s rights activism and anti-feminist activity happens inside the home, alone. There are conferences and rallies, but so much happens from behind a computer. They’re already opting out physically. Well, they’re living in the world of soapboxes and angry Twitter hordes too, right? A lot of the women I interviewed showed me the online threats they get. It’s not like they aren’t saying horrible things, but when the conversation descends into death threats, where are we really getting? As much as I talked to the stars of these movements, the public figures, what we have to be worried about is how those ideas are connecting on a mainstream level and how they’re playing out with who we vote into office, our attitudes at work, our attitudes at home, our day-to-day attitudes. It’s so easy to be outraged by a video we see on YouTube or a tweet that is meant to provoke us, but I think we need to ask how this rhetoric is being normalized and what it means for turning the tide of conversation. These things have been around and never went away, we just pretended they did. You note that many MRAs make a point of saying that that they don’t hate women. I think it’s a way of making their ideas more palatable to a mainstream audience. People don’t want to say “I hate women.” Well, most people do not want to say that. That’s not a contemporary thing to say. But to say, “Oh, I’m concerned about where women’s roles are going,” and, “We need to value mothers,” that’s something people still feel justified in saying. That’s something you can build an argument on. In the same way that people can say “I think we need to be concerned about immigration,” it’s all very coded language. It’s language that’s acceptable. It’s language that can spread. Have you kept up with the conversation around Lido Pimienta winning the Polaris Music Prize? I have, and I think it just plays back into this idea that we don’t like women who advocate for themselves. We still expect women to behave a certain way. The idea of a strong woman still happens in certain confines of how we expect women to be. “Well, we elevated you, and you’re a woman, shouldn’t we pat our backs for that, and shouldn’t you pat our backs too?” That’s not where we need to be. Stuff like that makes me so cynical. We want to be congratulated for doing the right thing for women, but we don’t actually want to hear what women have to say. We want to put them up on a pedestal but we don’t actually want them to be human. A large media company hired me to write, in their words, “feminist hot takes” a few years ago. When I got there they had me editing more than writing, and as soon as I started taking misogynistic sentences out of articles and declined to hire an accused serial rapist, my day-to-day work life was made impossible by men who didn’t want me there anymore. They’d hired me to churn out cool feminist click-bait. When I tried to implement not just feminist politics, but basic safety for others in the actual workplace, they were like, “no, get out.” People like to watch feminism as a spectacle, because then they can tear it down or ridicule it. When it comes to living it and implementing it as politics, it’s so much harder. It forces people to confront things in a way they’re still not prepared to do. People don’t want to hear you be thoughtful, they want to hear you be angry, because then they can say “look how ridiculous you are.” You write that, “In all the great women-on-women wars, none has more controversy than Stay-At-Home Mom versus Working Mom.” As you say, this strife really picked up when, in 1975, Simone de Beauvoir told Betty Friedan that no woman should be permitted to stay home and raise kids. How much of a role do men actually have in shaping the ideologies of anti-feminism? Is this movement more about women themselves than men? I think it depends on what level of the continuum you’re on. I certainly don’t think by any means that these women are like puppets to the men in their lives. Even though one might not agree with their politics, they fall into the stereotype of the strong woman. They have their own thoughts. They do their own research and they form their own opinions. Often the men in their lives are not as radical as they are. It’s not even that they hate women, I think what they’d say is that they hate the feminist ideology, because it presents women as perpetual victims and it tells women that they can have it all, when really we were better off in traditional gender roles. Even though a lot of them are men’s rights activists, it’s almost as if men don’t factor in at all. In another sense, men factor in because as feminism succeeds, traditional roles for everyone will break down. So they look at the traditional roles of men and see that those are not as entrenched as they once were, and they blame feminists. There’s this idea that if men’s traditional roles are under threat, women’s traditional roles are under threat, and if no one has their traditional roles then where are we? Chaos reigns. When it comes to that, it’s not only about wanting men to maintain traditional roles and their place in the world, it’s also about women maintaining their roles and their place in the world. There’s comfort in that for women who find themselves lost or just as baffled by the changing world as some men do.
The View from the Top of the Stair

When her father died, her second thought was that now, she could build her stairs.

Upon hearing of the death of my father at sixty-seven to a slippery lentil of a clot in his brain, my first thought was that my mother would have laughed, and my second thought, I am sorry to say, was that at long last I could gratify my passion for stairs. They were my first love and my truest. I adore a snappily spiraled stringer, volutes smooth as abalone, the twist of sunlight along a copper banister. On my minimalist salary as assistant to the art director of a well-known fashion magazine, the one indulgence I could afford was a slowly growing stack of architects’ portfolios and builders’ catalogues, which I special-ordered over the phone. These firms were the sort that issued business cards blank but for the tidy black serifs of their names, bearing nothing so vulgar as a number or address. I was never disappointed. Each photo spread was a masterpiece. Here were no poured concrete stoops or factory-sawed treads, no pine or softwood, none of your suburban rickrack tacked with furry polyester runners. The stairs splashed over double pages were poems of bird’s-eye maple and marble and chrome, tastefully composed, carefully lit, thick with varnish and money. I carried the catalogues in my bag and flicked through them at work. I ran my fingers over the coated pages before laying them on the bedside table. I tromped up and down the ugly cement steps, pricked all over with bubbles, that led through a square stairwell to my apartment, while I dreamed of owning a melted-chocolate Esteves, a twining Momo, a floating and impractical Lang and Baumann. It is strange how electrifying the sudden arrival of a small fortune can be. My father, born into famine in another country, had saved the laces from unsalvageable shoes and eaten every fleck of food in his bowl. He left me a comfortable savings account and an insurance policy to be paid out over two decades. I went over his accounts three times to be certain. But there it was, a cold sum fanged with two commas. I could quit my job. I could build my stairs. This is not to say that I did not grieve for my father. At the time he died, I had not seen him in two years. He had ensconced himself in retirement in a cabin in the Alaskan wilds, enjoying the elastic days and nights. Once every few months he would call me to describe the midnight explosions of color in the sky and the mosquitoes as big as cats. I said, every call, “Have you seen a doctor?” He said, every call, “You’re turning into your mother.” My mother had been after him to see a doctor for as long as I can remember. She made appointments, and he canceled them. She warned him of lupus, hepatitis, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, cancer. He laughed and shook his head at her. She had died too early, her hands roughened from cooking and keeping house for the three of us, the humor long since rubbed out of her laugh, which was like pebbles shaken in a cup. Apart from our ritual exchange, by mutual agreement, my father and I did not speak of her. A week after my father’s funeral, after the reek of lilies had left my nostrils, I called the art director and informed her that I would not be returning to work. “A natural reaction, given the circumstances,” the director said. She had smoked incessantly while cigarettes had been in vogue, and her voice always managed to convey impressions of hellfire and opulence. “Wouldn’t you like another few weeks to think it over? Take your time. Take all the leave you want. It’ll be unpaid, but—” No, I said, giddy with freedom. Thank you, but no, I am in fact moving, here is my forwarding address. By then I had selected, after a brief but methodical search, an old barn that had stood vacant for fifteen years after the death of its owner. It was out in the countryside and excitingly distant from neighbors, surrounded by ten acres of fallow farmland. I exchanged my pinching black pumps for boots and drove out in a spotless white rental for a look. The gravel path to the barn was thickly overgrown, and the owner’s son and I swam through waist-deep grass. What I saw was unprepossessing. The ancient red and white of the barn’s sidings was peeling to gray. Over the door hung the brown circle of a hex, rusted and discolored beyond recognition. The owner’s son unhitched a padlock and chain and shouldered the door open, then showed me into the dim interior, dusty with down and mold. Despite the owl pellets and droppings whitening the floor, and the gloomy shape luffing its wings upon a crossbeam, several generations of mice roistered beneath the floorboards. Turning to me, the owner’s son gestured helplessly at the dilapidation, as if to say, what could we do? From the moment I walked in, I knew I wanted the barn. I knew what I would do. It was as if my vague, unsatisfied desires, cloudy in the colloid of privation, had at the first contact with money precipitated into a crystal lattice I could inspect from all sides, acquainting myself with the angles and edges of my hunger. I packed half my belongings, disposed of the other half, and moved into the barn before it was fit for habitation. For nights on end the moonlight spilled through holes in the roof. I could look up and see Cassiopeia and Cygnus picked out in melee diamonds, except when the shadow of the owl briefly blotted them out. It was summer, and warm. I suffered only small galaxies of insect bites and a few hours of damp and steaming clothes when a thunderstorm rumbled through. None of that mattered. As soon as the telephone was connected, I punched in several phone numbers so familiar that I did not need to peel apart the sodden pages of my address book, and explained what I wanted. “We can send you a proposal and preliminary contract,” the woman on the other end said, her voice curving with doubt. She recognized my name if not my voice: the importunate caller who begged for catalogues year after year, her checks hardly worth the postage. She named a figure that iced my blood before I remembered that I was wealthy. “Twenty percent of the estimate is due as a deposit before any design work is begun.” My cheeks warmed and tingled. “That will not be a problem,” I said. “I am writing the check right now. Listen. I am putting it in an envelope. I am licking the flap. What address shall I write?” So it went at every firm. I waited a week, allowing four days for the postal system and three days for the banks. Meanwhile the local contractors I had hired, morose types in spattered overalls, continued to patch up the barn. They scooped out rotten wood and ripped off moldering shingles, muttering at my supervision. At every opportunity, they shucked their work gloves and lounged in the barn’s shade until I chivvied them back to their crowbars. Once I heard them remark on the audacity of a single woman, particularly one with my face and eyes, in occupying the abandoned Sutton farm in the middle of a vast whiteness, and their faces grew ugly with something I recognized from subways and buses and shops, on corners and in offices, and I went and hid in the woods until they had left for the day. When I phoned the firms again, the men and women who spoke to me were variously deferential, obliging, anxious, and subdued. I understood well, having spent twelve years in their place. “When can you begin?” I said. “The partners will have to visit the site—unless you have blueprints—” “Will tomorrow do?” A silence of sucked breath, then effusive apologies. I was not worried. I could wait. Soon the barn was restored to a state that, though far from luxurious, no ordinary person would have been ashamed to inhabit. I was scrubbed and steamed, and my wardrobe was replenished, by the time the architects arrived. Crisply sleeved, hair slicked, their noses shining from the summer heat, they came and went with pursed lips and gridded notebooks. I trailed them, clutching brochures gone wavy and crackling with rain. “What do you think?” I said and said again. Some of them brushed me aside. Some were lost in contemplation and never heard the question. One or two sat down and sketched for me, as if for a child, the strange and lovely shapes in their minds. “It has reached our attention,” the starchiest of the receptionists said over the phone one day, “that you have solicited competing bids from at least two other firms. I thought I would take the opportunity to remind you that the deposit is not refundable.” “They’re not competing,” I said. “I beg your—” “I want all of them.” “I’m sorry?” “Reed will build his design, and Ling and Martin will build theirs, and Jewett will build hers. I will pay you all in full. Please tell Mr. Reed that I am enchanted by his suggestion of automatic hourglass balusters. In addition, I would like to propose a pair of Galileo thermometers for the newel posts.” “But how many staircases can one person use?” “All of them, Ms. Singh.” The egg-blue phone remained my solitary connection to the city. I used it rarely, but when I did I usually spoke to Sophia Z., who taught elementary school, and about whom there drifted an ineluctable odor of crayons. Just as I loved stairs, she adored doors, in her quiet way, never seeking them out on her own, but always appreciative of the ones she encountered in the course of her day. Many doors had been shut in her face over the years, which gives one time to admire the finer details of stile and rail. “It’s not finished, but you should come see it,” I told her. “I’ve never been prouder.” “Proud? You?” she said. “That’s a first.” “Doesn’t run in my family.” “In that case, I’ll have to. But the kids, the timing—I can’t get them out of my hair—” “I’ll pay for a babysitter.” “That’s too much.” “Please let me. Anthony’s busy, I take it?” Here the connection weakened, or else Sophia mumbled, but in the end we fixed the date of a visit. She drove two hours from the city to my barn, which was still crumbly with sawdust and bustling with workmen. She had brought a bag of zongzi as a housewarming gift, and I plopped two in a pot and set it on the hot plate to boil. “They’ve been all right,” she said, when I asked about her children. She had named them Toronto, Manila, and San Diego, primarily as a geography lesson, but also in hopes of imparting a sense of spatial freedom that she herself lacked. Diego had caught every cold that cropped up at school; Nila was emptying tissue boxes over boys; and Toronto was acing her exams and bored out of her skull. We ate on the upper landing of the first staircase I had commissioned, a graceful iron spiral not quite reaching the roof. The bars were worked with ivy and honeysuckle. The treads contained varying amounts of iron and were tuned to play, when struck in ascending order, the first notes of Handel’s Water Music. We deposited the strings and banana leaves in a sticky pile beside us. Sophia leaned over the edge and looked down. “What are you planning here?” “A proper home,” I said. “A space I can stretch out in.” “What will it look like?” She indicated the small platform we occupied, supported by the staircase on one side, on the other by a frame suspended from the roof. "Are you building a second floor?" “Not really. Over there? That corner was part of the hayloft. The rest collapsed. It’ll be cleaned and reinforced. I’ll put a mattress there, and a flight of stairs up to it. That’s all I need.” “How many stairs, in total?” “As many as I can afford.” She sighed with the faintest tinge of envy. “I could never.” “Even something less extravagant? What about replacing your front door?” “Anthony would never let me. It’s solid core, triple locked and deadbolted. Hideous but safe. I’d want an arch—we’d have to redo the wall. And we don’t have the money for that. Not with the kids.” “When they’re done with school?” “Maybe,” Sophia said. Her eyes said: no. Three weeks after her visit, I found myself the proud possessor of twelve sets of stairs. Each of the long walls boasted three straight flights in parallel, spaced far enough apart that the underside of one did not loom over the next. The long wall on the north side of the barn had, from left to right, one floating stair constructed of blunt silver blades; one extended undulation cut from a single slab of teak; and one staircase of white resin and lacquer molded into the shapes of wings and impressed with feathers. Across the barn, the southern wall had the Reed hourglass stair; a ribbon of steel painted yellow and blue that looped upon itself, alternating colors; and, last in line, a series of four bronze trees whose limbs bent into treads. The short walls were only fitted with one staircase each, but these were sprawling and magnificent. On the east wall I installed an imperial staircase of Carrara marble with a handsome brass rail, topped with two brass sphinxes and ending in brass lion’s paws. The western stair was pieced together from jigsawed rosewood, mahogany, ebony, and oak, and the pattern of woods pulled the gaze upward. On the open floor, my musical iron spiral formed one point of a diamond, the other three vertices of which were also clockwise spirals. One, a child’s stair, really, which I could not climb myself, was fashioned from polished bone and tapered like a narwhal horn. One was a square coil of aluminum pleated into steps. One had an illuminated newel controlled by a switch, and at night its warm yellow light fanned the shadows of the other stairs into lace. This last spiral struck the ceiling and emerged onto the roof through a trapdoor. Several of the straight flights ended at high square windows. The hourglass stair abutted my sleeping platform, which I lined with matching glass balusters. The rest reached into emptiness and grasped nothing at all. Looking at what I had made, I felt an unfamiliar contentment stealing over my heart. It was not finished, no; perhaps like certain emanations from the heart’s most secret quarters, it never would be. There ought to be stairs on the exterior of the barn, for a start. Then I could excavate a cellar, or several, and perhaps add an attic, a tower, a retractable ladder. But the trees edging the fields flamed crimson overnight, and geese dragged their brown chevrons across the sky. No work of the kind I imagined could be done in winter. I buried myself in quilts, with a pen and a wad of paper, and dreamed. As the snow fell outside, I covered pages back and front with zigzags, helices, crosshatches, scrolls, letting them drift to the floor. Though I seldom visited town and barely knew my neighbors, when I began adding stairs along the outside of the barn in spring, people took note. A pest of a local reporter rang me three times and published lengthy speculations and several photos when I would not speak to him. Cars crunched down the dirt road leading to the barn, spitting out gawkers in the daytime and shining their headlights through my windows at night. I resented the attention. I blocked up the original doorway and chopped and fitted a new entrance above the white winged stairs, accessible from without only by a transparent flight of glass. This discouraged a fair number of my visitors, but not all. On Friday nights, after pool or a movie, pock-faced high school students dared each other to climb the invisible steps. When I heard the whispering and giggling and the squeak of sneakers on glass, I pointed a flashlight out the window and shouted until they jumped down and ran. In desperation I erected a fence, a gate, and signs that threatened bulldogs and shotguns, although I had neither, regretting the expense. The number of visitors presently declined. Some nights, a twig snapping outside was nothing more than a rummaging skunk. Still, none of these things deterred the nut-brown man who came down the road in September. I watched his approach from an upper window. He wore jeans and a denim jacket. His hands were empty. He did not stop and stare when he saw the barn, but climbed the glass stair without hesitation and knocked. “I don’t mean to bother you,” he said, his voice so soft I could barely understand him, “but I heard you collected stairs. I want to offer you one.” “Who are you?” I said. “I make stairs,” he said. “For those who appreciate them.” There was mud on his work boots, a silver buckle on his belt, and a pepper of white in his black ponytail. His face was clean but roughened and deepened by labor. I could tell nothing else about him. He had braved the signs, the chained and padlocked gate, the stairs that even now appeared to vanish beneath him, leaving him standing on air. “I’ll be honest with you,” I said. “I’ve run out of money, beyond what I need to eat. I thought I could afford one more, one last stair to crown and complete my home, but I had to buy a fence instead. If you can build the kind of staircase I want, I can’t pay you.” “All I want in way of payment is for you to climb the staircase that I build.” I stared at him. He studied the winder and switchback that led to the roof. “Why would you build stairs for me if I can’t pay you?” “You can,” he said patiently. “By climbing them.” “What would they look like, your stairs?” “Cast iron, three foot radius, acanthus balusters, a stamp of birds on each tread.” “If I may ask, what is so wonderful about them? I can order what you describe from anyone.” “They are the highest stairs in the world,” he said. “Higher than castles, taller than skyscrapers. They stretch up to the stars.” I paused. Who was I, with my house of seventeen stairs, to decide another person was delusional? He did not look the part. There was a soberness and solidity about him that put me in mind of granite. “The stars?” I said. “Or higher, maybe.” Odd as it sounded, I liked the idea. Already in my mind I owned a flight of stairs that like Jacob’s Ladder raced into the celestial unknown. I did not care that what he described was impossible. I did not care if he built me a five-story factory-kit staircase that ended nowhere at all. I did not care if he never built anything. His beautiful dream had filled my head, and nothing could remove it. “Build your stairs,” I said. “I’ll climb them.” “I’d like to start from the roof.” “All right.” “I’ll need a support column underneath, for the weight.” “Send me the specifications and I’ll have that done.” He began two weeks later, arriving at dawn and departing at dusk. His steps echoed on the roof. I could hear him whistling a tune I couldn’t quite place, neither cheerful nor melancholy. When I left the house I saw him measuring, scribbling, chewing the pencil he wore behind his ear. I did not speak to him. He did not knock again. Then he vanished. I was disappointed but also relieved. I had wanted to believe in his impossible idea, but I had also been afraid of the consequences. What would the former plague of teenagers be, beside the crowd drawn by an iron needle threading the sky? The steel support, featureless and cruelly asymmetrical among my spirals, filled me with hope and regret when I looked at it. He returned at the end of October in a red pickup truck with a black tarp lashed down over the mound in its bed. I waved to him, he nodded, and that was all. Throughout the day, the clang and shriek of metal upon metal echoed through the barn. I left water and covered plates of pasta and chicken on the stairs to the roof, and he returned the empty plates to my glass doorstep. He did not pack up and leave at dark, but worked more quietly, with a headlamp. I fell asleep listening to his footsteps and the hissing of sand in the hourglasses around me. He worked steadfastly through six days and nights. The thump of his work boots overhead made the tuned spiral staircase hum in sympathy. If he rested, I did not know it. Sometimes I went outside to see the spindle rising over the barn. I did not wish to interfere, so I did not climb to the roof, though I longed to see my new staircase taking form. He only left my barn to replenish his mountain of parts, a task that took upwards of an hour. I might have gone up then, I might have looked and touched, but I thought that somehow he would know, and I could not bear him knowing. I waited. This was harder than waiting for the repairs to the roof, harder than waiting for the architects’ plans, far harder than waiting for the assembly of my other seventeen staircases. I lived in constant anticipation. At last, one evening, there came a knock at the door. His hands were blackened with dirt and oil, his face streaked with the same. His eyes were still and quiet. “Is it done?” I said. “It’s finished.” “May I see?” “Please.” The sun was setting through the distant trees. The staircase ran higher than my eyes could follow, so high I grew dizzy looking at it. It might have ended after sixteen stories, or twenty, or thirty, and I would not have known. The black iron glowed copper and bronze in the slanting alchemical sunlight, though night crept up its length. “When should I start climbing?” I asked. “When you are ready.” “How long will that take?” “As I said, when you are ready. Bring food and water, and a warm coat. Maybe blankets. It’s getting cold.” “Blankets?” “There are landings for you to sleep on. You can’t see them from here.” I glanced up again, but it was growing dark, and any deviations from the regular spiral were invisible to me. “Will I see you again?” I said, although I thought I already knew the answer. He smiled. The half moon brightened in the sky, spangling the stairs. His footsteps receded down the steps to the fallow earth. The truck stuttered and started. I turned my eyes from the fine filigreed structure in time to see the builder of stairs drive down the dirt road leading to elsewheres, the headlights of his truck flickering through the trees. The reader of fairy tales will understand when I say that I did not hesitate or question the strange requirement, as one would ordinarily do, for at times there is a certain silver inevitability about our choices that no amount of reasoning can explain. It is an impulse to truth or rightness, felt in the marrow: feed the animals before eating, offer water to the crone. I packed what food I already had: water, bread, tabbed cans of soup, apples, carrots, peanut butter, cheese. To these I added an armful of blankets and enough sweaters to swell me to the roundness of a drum. I slept fitfully that night and set off at dawn. My stairs to the sky were conspicuous, and others would soon come to investigate. I did not want to explain myself to the dull and curious. I did not want to delay. The air was cold and crisp, but I sweated under the layers of wool. After several hours I tugged off my hat and tossed it over the side, watching with pleasure as it tumbled, shrank, and disappeared. Its weight had been slight, but my heart lightened. I climbed high above the lemniscates of birds, until the scattered houses below me appeared to be tokens from a game. There was no sound but the rushing wind and occasionally the rumble of a distant airplane. Otherwise, I was profoundly alone. Night came without an end to the stairs, but I reached a curved landing I had not seen from my barn, just wide enough to curl up on. At that rarified altitude, the wind was bitterer than I expected. The iron was bitingly cold. I regretted the excess of spirits that led me to throw away my hat and abandon two blankets on the steps far below. I ate a can of soup and two slices of bread with chattering teeth, thinking that it would be better to eat during the day. I passed the next seven days in this fashion. The air grew paler, the light thinner. I left my empty cans on the steps, weighed down with apple cores, and tied plastic wrappers around the balusters. On the seventh day I finished the food I was carrying: the last apple, the last bite of cheese, the last sip of water. At that moment I looked down upon the contracting world and contemplated what I undertook to do. Sophia would miss me, but she would understand. Other than her, there was no one and nothing tying me to the earth. In some ways this is what I have always wanted. Soon, I think, I will pass the moon. Each time it swings by, it looks larger, closer, its scarred smile more delicate and more intimate. I wonder if I could have asked the builder of stairs to fix the end of my staircase in the moon. It looks like a friendly place. Too late, now. I am a little thinner and lighter each day. Sometimes I feel so light that letting go of the balustrade would send me floating upwards, faster and faster, until everything is blue and infinite. But when I drop my hands to my sides, I do not rise. Not yet. So I climb, hour after hour, day after day, losing the clear thread of time in the unbroken repetition of tread and tread. They are stamped with robins, as he promised. The sun comes and goes. The moon waves. I climb. I am climbing still.
The End of Progress

As I watched my childhood friend under arrest on the evening news, the hopeful narratives of racial advancement that had sustained and motivated me began to collapse.

The other day I turned on the evening news to find my childhood friend staring out at me from the TV screen. Kevin* had been charged with serious crimes. He looked haggard, scared and resigned. Whatever he was going through, whatever trouble he was in, had clearly aged him beyond his years. Had I not known him for as long and as closely as I have, I may not have recognized him. Several years ago, while walking along Yonge Street in Toronto, a slap thundered across my back. It was Kevin. He still had that big toothy grin and that huge resounding laugh, which erupted and spilled out into the street the moment we locked eyes. I was happy to see him. We stood and talked while mildly annoyed passersby swirled around us. Something was calling him away. It would have to be a warm but short encounter. We exchanged numbers, hugged and promised to stay in touch. We never did. When we were young, Kevin dreamed of owning a business. It was his singular vision. He planned on making it big in the music industry. He would buy his mother a house, spend his well-earned C.R.E.A.M on flashy accoutrements, and travel the world. That he would make it all happen required no convincing. It was only a matter of time. Tall and affable, Kevin made friends easily. He and I spent a lot of time together, most of it applied to the business of exploring and showing-off our burgeoning Black masculinities, which were very much in demand in those heady Bobby Brown-infused school days. We became de facto representatives of Black culture in our mostly white school. We developed a reliable reputation as a swashbuckling R&B duo: he would spin all the right records at parties; I would warm up the dance floor. Kevin and I had a lot in common. We were both raised by single mothers who struggled to provide, but we were, on the whole, fine. We had hordes of caring people around us, large and protective clans that complemented our mothers' love and made up for anything we may have lacked. Neither of us had a sophisticated understanding of the racial context in which our Black lives played out. In our fledgling minds we existed at the center of the world, not at its margins. So it came as a complete shock when a flummoxed supply teacher cornered us one day, desperate to get a message across. “They’re watching you two,” he said. He spoke in that urgent but hushed tone reserved for secrets. “They’re waiting for you to fall on your faces.” We laughed. We had no idea what he was talking about. It never occurred to us that we were being “watched,” nor did it register that “they”—which we later understood to mean our white teachers—were expecting us to fail.  But over the years, those words of caution stayed with me. It is not a stretch to say that they ignited a race consciousness and an inner drive which I've used to push back against those predictions. In many ways, forecasted failure has been my largest source of motivation in everything I’ve done in life. As such, those words have remained as an indelible warning. Even after we grew apart, I always assumed those words had stayed with Kevin, too.  * Since that moment in the hallway, I’ve tried never to fall on my face. I’ve wholeheartedly and incessantly ticked every status box within reach—high school graduation, university degrees, marriage, employment and home ownership—in a deliberate attempt to erect a stolid bulwark against failure and, more specifically as a Black man, against involvement with the criminal justice system. Secure within my upwardly mobile middle-class ethos, I believed personal accomplishment would provide both protection and a pathway to well-being. But I’ve not come through unscathed. I’ve fallen on my face numerous times. I spent ten soul-sucking years being precariously employed. This left me pained and depressed, fearing that I couldn’t escape what my teachers had foretold. Despite the generous amounts of education I have attained, I have struggled daily to subsist as a part-time college professor, which is a unique professional status that produces its own twilight zone of enlightened suffering. In that strange and suspended space, I’ve known the irony of being utterly penniless while haranguing students about the exploitative impacts of neo-liberal economics; I’ve given numerous lectures on the increasing racialization of under-employment, wounded by every stat that betrayed my own wretched existence; I’ve known the isolating and deflating feeling of being the sole Black person in meetings purported to be focused on diversity and inclusion. And in my worst moments, I’ve known what it means to lose my home because—for reasons beyond my deepest comprehension—all of my hard work, planning, networking, learning, credentialing, smiling and striving wasn’t enough to pay the rent. And yet I count myself as privileged because I know my challenges pale in comparison to the countless number of Black Canadians who have fared much worse. The evidence is there for anyone who has the stomach to look at it: massive over-representation in prisons; widespread racial profiling in policing and child welfare systems; entrenched underemployment and unemployment; shameful high school dropout and push-out rates; intergenerational poverty; housing discrimination; troubling health outcomes. All of these experiences have become synonymous with what is means to be Black in Canada. And what about our responses to this unconscionable history of tribulation? In what way have we addressed what others have called a veritable “social death”? * In a crude form of social analysis, I’ve always placed my people into three broad categories. In the first group there are those who pay little attention to ongoing debates about race and identity politics. These are the self-described pragmatic folks, people who concern themselves with earning a living, raising their kids, paying their bills, keeping their heads down and not much more. Occupied primarily with securing basic needs, they have little to no time to reflect on how anti-Black racism has shaped and circumscribed their lives. This is not to say they are unaware. That would be untrue. However, they’ve mostly accepted that life is what it is, and aim to get along the best they can.   The second group is where I’ve situated myself: the hopeful reformers. We engage privately and publicly in discussions about race, and we strategize about how to improve our people’s lot. For the most part we, too, accept that our neo-capitalist economy is here to stay, so we subscribe to the grand idea that through persuasion, protest and perseverance, we—or, more likely our children or grandchildren—will one sweet day bring about a society founded on the principle of genuine racial equality. I’ve heard someone use the term “pessimistic optimists.” That aptly describes who we are. The third group consists of Black people who also want change but have given up on the belief—if they ever held it—that such change can be realized through modifying our current white supremacist order. They therefore reject reform agendas and seek the complete dismantling of the status quo. They invest their time and polemic energies not in suggesting policy tweaks but in imagining totally new ways of being within a transformed society that looks nothing like our present one. These groups have always existed alongside each other. There has never been a moment in history when all Black people agreed on the same political path to true emancipation. But in more recent times—in the face of overwhelming and seemingly intractable anti-Black racism—people like me, who proudly affirm membership in the second group, have started to struggle with significant doubt. We have begun to question the racial progress narratives that have motivated and sustained us for so long. Seeing Kevin on the news renewed these doubts of mine. How did someone who shared in my childhood story, values and beliefs get caught up with the law? How did those vivid and lovely dreams of his come to ruin? * In 1999, during my third year at university, I met Andre* at the Fort York Armoury. He was one of hundreds of people in the city who sheltered there during the homelessness crisis that summer. I was one of the temporary staff hired to make sure the unprecedented situation didn’t get out of control. Andre could be difficult. Sturdily built and grey-haired, he was strong and pesky right into his mid-seventies. He stomped around with a demanding air and shot death stares through his dark sunglasses whenever he didn’t get his way—which was often. Andre was from the east coast—or “down home” as he taught me—where his family’s lineage extended back generations. He had fallen into poverty because he struggled to hold down jobs. This was because he always seemed to find himself in some scrap or the other. As a result, his relationships suffered, then his health followed. After years toiling in construction, he drifted west and settled down in Toronto, hoping to be left alone. He slept rough for several years until he moved permanently into the shelter system.  Despite a sharp intellect and early ambition, Andre’s life was essentially a hard and unhappy one. Hyper-aware of racism and his humble beginnings, he still managed to believe in fairness and was prepared to work his way up in the world. Although he wanted to be an engineer, he could only find manual labour jobs where he often ended up injured and received low pay. “Canada isn’t a nice place for Black people,” he told me on several occasions. “It’s like running into a big brick wall.” No matter how valiant his efforts, a decent and dignified life had eluded him.  One day I was called over to see about a dustup in the shelter’s dinner line. I found Andre and a heavy-set white man standing with their noses an inch apart, their fists cocked. “What’s going on here?” I said, placing myself between them. Andre’s chest heaved. His sunglasses were flipped up on his wrinkled brow, revealing his rheumy light brown eyes to me for the first time. “He thinks because he’s an old man he can jump the line!” the other man barked. “I did no such thing!” yelled Andre. “I’ve been waiting here the whole time!” A crowd circled. People were starting to take sides. Andre was known to push in where and whenever he could at the armoury. It was not the first time he had caused a scene by squeezing into places where others felt he didn’t belong. Playing by the rules hadn’t gotten him anywhere, he liked to remind me. “Look at me,” he would say, bearing his gnarled, arthritic hands as proof. I had decided early on to do what I could. If it was within my power to make his life even the slightest bit easier, I would do so. It was my way of pushing back against the weight of injustice, against whatever forces had trapped and consumed him.   “Hey!” I shouted.  The white man turned to look right at me. “Andre was here first,” I said. I stared straight back at him, finding conviction in my lie. “Bullshit!” someone shouted. “That’s crap!” “Sticking up for your own, eh?” chimed someone else. Rage swept across the man’s wind-beaten face. He didn’t say a word. He just shook his head slowly and unceasingly, as though someone had told him a tall tale he couldn’t accept. Shortly after that conflict, Andre disappeared. For weeks I asked around for him, but I never saw him again. I imagine he’s dead now, no more jumping the dinner queue, no more willing his way to survival.  *  Knowing that Black Canadians still find themselves living “at the bottom of the well,” I can no longer believe that progress narratives alone are an adequate response to the massive racial disparities which structure our society. Stories of gradual change, pushing against odds, and reforming systems of oppression from within have been completely exhausted. Seven decades after the dawn of the civil rights movement, fifty years since Black Power, and several months now into the Trump era, I'm prepared to conclude that our white capitalist social order is indeed beyond reform. Does this then mean the end of the struggle for social justice and the acceptance of defeatism? Absolutely not. But it does mean that our current approaches have been proven bankrupt. It means the moment for visioning and articulating an "unthinkable politics" has finally come. And while it may take many lifetimes to achieve this, the liberating impacts derived from pursuing a transformed society are probably well worth it. As Lisa Marie Cacho reminds us, “the outcome of the struggle doesn’t matter as much as the decision to struggle.” I have no idea where Kevin is today. There are days when I imagine him pent up in some dank cell. On other days, I picture him like he was when we were young, walking around freely, relieved that the criminal justice system hasn’t ensnared him. I look for him whenever I find myself walking along Yonge Street, hoping to pick up where we left off. *Name has been changed 
‘We Do Things to Survive That Are Not Always Pretty’: An Interview with Linden MacIntyre

The journalist and author of The Only Café on violence, how curiosity sparks our accumulation of memory, and why nothing is ever new. 

Linden MacIntyre’s The Only Café (Random House Canada) is about failed attempts to forget the past, and the consequences of revisiting territory behind what the novel calls “the memory wall.” The book, McIntyre’s third novel, draws on his on-the-ground experience as a journalist in the 1982 Lebanon War, as well as his later experiences both behind the scenes and in front of the camera as co-host of the CBC’s newsmagazine the fifth estate. Pierre Cormier, one of the novel’s two protagonists, starts the novel dead—or, at least, vanished. At a reading of his will, his son Cyril discovers that his father has a mysterious connection with a bar in East Toronto called The Only Café, and a much more compelling and mysterious connection to atrocities in the not-so-distant past in Lebanon. Helped—or possibly hindered—by a supposed friend of his father’s named Ari who hangs out at The Only Café, Cyril starts to investigate his father’s past, paralleling Pierre’s own plunge into the past, a journey he made in the months leading up to his disappearance. Naben Ruthnum: I wasn’t exactly ignorant of the period of history in Lebanon—the 1982 Civil War—that forms the dark backdrop of memory that drives the action in The Only Café, but I certainly wasn’t well-informed. The novel’s story moves while signposting crucial bits of history, ensuring that this reader at least could really follow things. Was it hard to balance this information-giving with storytelling? Linden MacIntyre: [The balance] just happened, because—for someone who has been there, it’s always surprising—[the Lebanon War] has been in the forefront of my consciousness since the early ‘80s. One assumes that everyone’s been studying it in school, everyone’s as familiar with it today as I was then. I guess one of the most rewarding aspects of having written this is that it’s opening people to two things. One that this particular event, and this particular civil war, happened, and it was horrifying.  And when people become conscious of that, they become conscious that all the other horrors that are going on all around us that everybody right now knows about are part of the same continuum, part of the same dynamic. It’s not inconceivable that maybe twenty-five, thirty years from now, the ISIS phenomenon, the war in Syria, the war in Iraq—these things that are front and centre in our consciousness today—will be new to another generation. And another generation may have a reason to revisit what’s happening today, and will be further aware of this continuum of history. That was a big part of my education as I grew older: I suddenly realized there was nothing really new. It’s all part of something that was going on before. Another way you suggest that continuum of history is Pierre’s job: his current-day job working in mining engineering. There’s a violent incident involving local workers in Indonesia entering a conflict with the Canadian company Pierre works for, which projects him back to the past. This happening in the supposed “third world,” has a huge impact on Pierre, and links him to his own memories of where he came from before embarking on his new life in Canada.   I got a little worried that [that section] was getting a complicated thematically, but I realized that it’s just one theme: that violence is universal. If Canadians feel that we are exempted or that we are somehow insulated from it, then we’re deluding ourselves. The Canadian mining industry is working in some extremely violent and precarious places—this event in Indonesia (in the book) is not entirely fictional. I’m aware of a similar situation, involving Canadians. It wasn’t in Indonesia, but it was in that part of the world. It’s a very powerful and influential part of human nature, this tendency to do violent things, to betray our fundamental values and character and engage in violence. Whether it’s in the behaviour of a corporation in the so-called third world or in a civil war in a place like Syria or Iraq or in Vietnam or Lebanon, there is something in human nature that wants to create horrifying circumstances for other human beings. It’s just one theme: that violence is part of our collective and personal memory. And that violence can become overwhelming when it takes over the memory, and can lead us to very dangerous places. Pierre has managed to wall off a lot his violent memories until this incident in Indonesia reawakens it. And then a chance encounter in a little bar brings him up really close to his own particular experience, and Pierre somehow thinks “because I’ve shared this experience with this guy, the two of us have a similar and equivalent need to excavate and to get rid of the demons that it left us with.” This is a mistake, because you cannot assume that every memory, even of particular events, has any similarity to someone else’s memory. Pierre doesn’t seem to get it, and keeps pushing the memory, not realizing that what’s past for him is not really past for Ari, the guy he’s trying to draw out. The whole question of trying to explore the worst memories is usually a healthy impulse we have. But to presume that someone who shares a version of that memory is going to be in sync with you in revisiting it is a perilous proposition.  Something I feel is pretty attuned to these ideas of memory and recurring violence is curiosity—curiosity’s a prominent part of this book, and something I found to be particularly interesting in Cyril, Pierre’s son, who is working a journalism internship as he begins this plunge into his father’s past, prompted by Pierre’s mysterious will. Cyril seems like someone who had stunted curiosity about his father’s background, which is actively kickstarted in his early twenties, at the beginning of this book. What is it that makes him less curious about his dad as a child, and what gets him going once he finds his father’s will?   It’s fairly natural, curiosity—Cyril is a young guy who doesn’t have a great store of memories, and in particular he doesn’t have much memory of his father, who stepped out of his life when he was just a boy. Curiosity is where memory gets born—we become curious about stuff, and as we find things out, as we experience things, motivated by our curiosity, we accumulate memory. Part of my theory of journalism is that one of the principal assets that a journalist must have is an open-minded curiosity. So Cyril’s curiosity is normal—he’s curious about his dad, who first disappeared into another relationship. And Cyril repressed that initial curiosity by being angry and bitter. But now dad has disappeared, and the curiosity is reborn. Now it’s not enough to just say, “Oh, fucking Dad walked out on us and I’m not going to think about him anymore.” Now there’s a deeper mystery, and it’s a sharpened by the fact that Cyril deep down believes that he’s never going to get the chance to ask questions of his dad again. So that sort of drives him all the more. Because of the career Cyril’s chosen, this flowering of curiosity also seems linked to him maturing, becoming a man. I thought that was interestingly paralleled with Pierre’s, as it’s brutally phrased in the book, “chemical castration”—the end of his life, in his mind, as a functionally sexual person. There’s something symbolic about Pierre’s crisis over his health. He’s approaching middle age, and it’s bringing many things into focus about what’s important in his life. It becomes part of the healing process when he’s out on the boat—as I step back from the book and look at these characters as real people, I think that one of the great tragedies is that Pierre reaches an epiphany (toward the end of his storyline). He’s come to terms with his own physical limitations, with the toxicity of his own personal memory, with his new child coming, his great relationship, and knows that he came close to screwing everything up because of his obsession with his memory. But he’s already created his own doom, while he was pursuing this obsession with the worst part of his life. Anyone who’s ever had to confront the reality of cancer—it’s one of those moments that redefines everything. I had a character in an earlier novel say that “Cancer isn’t just a diagnosis, it’s an announcement.” Everything in your life is about to change. Whether you have serious cancer that’s going to kill you, or you have a curable cancer that’s going to draw you down and through a primal experience of survival, everything changes. As Ari says in the book, survival has no moral quality. If you survive, you go on; if you don’t, you don’t. We survive, we do things to survive that are not always pretty. We are often the products of the lives of survivors. Much of The Only Café reads like a spy novel. You’re many books into your career, but when you’re coming to a complex novel like this, with two protagonists, these deceptive and slowly revealed sources of information, and a complex timeline—do you ever go back to any model writers? I was thinking of John le Carré and Graham Greene, for example, when I was reading this. Do you think of the structures of other novels as you construct yours? Those are two of my favourite writers, actually, particularly in the way they develop character. I think I might well have been influenced by them to come to an understanding of how important it is that the characters you invent take on a reality. So that when they speak, you’re not putting words in their mouths—you’re transcribing what they say. [Le Carré and Greene] are two of the greatest examples of writers who are very good at that. Of course, working in TV for many years, I understand the importance of the human voice, how people talk, coming from a very oral culture. Dialogue, talk, the shape of a story was a key part of the local culture. I don’t know if there is a model or a place to go to learn how to structure a complicated story. [The Only Café] was a story that sat around in my brain for a long time, and I never had really sat down with a big sheet of paper and sketched out architecture. I had an idea for a story, I had an idea for some characters, for a basic situation. But I knew I was setting myself up for a lot of struggle, by virtue of the fact that it was going to be a mystery story to find out who this guy was and why he was dead. When you have a dead protagonist on page one, you’ve got a challenge. You can’t escape flashbacks, but I wanted to make them relevant, and relate them to an ongoing search by another character. I can remember a moment when I was out jogging one day, which is always a great way to think. Somehow it releases endorphins that activate the imagination a little bit, this is one of my theories. I suddenly realized that I was going to have to do this book in a fashion that isn’t my favourite form of storytelling: two points of view, two voices, two protagonists. I’m a traditionalist, I prefer one character and one voice, to make it work that way. There was never a moment in the story where I didn’t know how the next section was going to begin. The one part that was troubling was how I was going to end it—who was going to be left standing? I was surprised to find that The Only Café was a real place. I live in Toronto, but out in Parkdale, so I’m rarely out east, around the Danforth. But it’s rare to have a real-life place used in a novel where the writer has made slightly sinister associations with it in the plot. Did you run this by the owners? Do you go there? Oh yeah. I go there quite a bit, and I had those very same thoughts in my head. I asked this bartender there that I knew to set up a meeting with the owner. I sat down with the owner over coffee, and had my presentation in my head—I said, “Look, I’m writing a novel, I want to call it The Only Café.” He said that’s great, and I told him I wanted to put a lot of the action in this place. He said it was fine, and I told him I’d walk him through the story from one end to the other, just to make sure he was comfortable.  He said, “I don’t fuckin’ care what the story is. This is just cool,” drained his coffee and left.
Green To Me

Like anything I love, I mistrust the color green down to the fingernail-edges of all the feelings it engenders in me.

They brought the kudzu in to cover up the scars. We’re driving down to Savannah on the I-16, the highway that points like an arrow from the forest to the sea. There’s a thunderstorm picking up around us, and I have a warm styrofoam cup of gas station coffee and I’m sitting cross legged on the passenger seat, watching the rain whip the trees into a cacophony of green. The color seems to stain out past the borders of plants and vines and leaves and seep into the rest of the landscape, so that everything, even the billboards and pavement on the freeway stretching out in front of us, is at least a little green. The car is pointed toward the southern edge of the country, and it feels like the greens spill right off the edge of the land, curling and sirening out into the sea. Kudzu is a shocking green, like someone pushed a neon highlighter through the landscape, underlining the highways, spelling out a route on a map for a driver with poor eyesight and worse memory, so that they couldn’t miss it and couldn’t get it wrong. The plant was introduced to the south in 1930s during the Great Depression, with the newly created Soil Conservation Service offering cash incentives to farmers who agreed to plant kudzu seeds. The beneficiary of one of the great public relations campaigns in American history, kudzu was talked about in quasi-religious terms, miracle and resurrection, making barren ground live again. This is always the promise of green: The dream of rebirth, the springing hope that one could start over and be made new. But mainly kudzu was planted along railway tracks and new highways, places where industry and infrastructure had left ugly breaks in the land. Its eager and abundant green filled in the gashes and covered over the visible brutalities of progress, promising that what was profitable could also be beautiful, that the old did not have to be at war with the new, that the arteries of money were not at war with the land but one with it. It made the claim that these huge many-lane roads sprung symphonically out from the green, as wild and miraculous as the world’s natural wonders. In Bluets, Maggie Nelson asks, as the supposition that grounds the whole text, “imagine if I told you that I had fallen in love with a color.” Nelson refers to her obsession with blue, the blue of sadness and pornographic movies, the blue that haunts poetry and old jazz standards about despair. Reading Bluets, I felt intimately connected to Nelson’s obsession. Not the color blue—I feel only the usual amount of emotion toward that most emotion-laden of all colors—but the idea of having fallen in love with a color, all its figurative heaviness, its associations and its metaphors threading through my life, casting a wash over my experience of the world like an Instagram filter that slides its uniform color veil over the whole image. I look for greens, teasing them out of photos, trusting them too much when I find them, giving far too much credit to any place that will offer me the greatest possible abundance of green. Like anything I love, I mistrust the color down to the fingernail-edges of all the feelings it engenders in me. The very fact that I love it so fiercely, that it compels me so again and again toward it, makes it both suspicious and sinister to me. What are the larger forces working to make this color seem like escape and solution, like a larger and better answer than words, like the final destination and the place to hide? What is green doing that makes it seem to matter so much? * America first used green ink on money during the Civil War. The government issued paper bills as a means of financing the Union, literally printing currency, inventing money out of thin air. We had done this same thing during the Revolutionary War, but the paper money was printed at such volume that it almost immediately became valueless and useless. This failed currency wasn’t green, and though I know it’s not as simple as that, I also know that, in some ways, it is. Green is money’s blissful lie of abundance, the loving embrace of a well-made long con. Previously, state and local banks had issued their own bills, but the Union’s regularized currency branded itself by the sickly green accented color that we associate with money today. The color was the result of anti-counterfeiting measures; photography was a new technology, and required new precautions. The green on the bills wouldn’t show up on photographic copies, and therefore proved authenticity, protecting the government’s monopoly on printing money. In 1929, following the stock market crash, the U.S. government re-thought and essentially rebranded its money, shrinking down the size of the bills and standardizing the designs for each denomination. But when it came to rethinking the color, the treasury chose to keep the green, despite the fact that advances in anti-counterfeiting technology meant it was no longer necessary for authentication purposes. While the reason for keeping the green hue was primarily because green ink was plentiful and cheap, it was also determined that green represented stability and growth to people—by seeing green, they would associate a feeling of generativity and dependability with the sight of a U.S. dollar bill. American summer highways are as green as money. The two are completely different shades and yet they do the same thing, perform the same acrobatic function through the means of color. The intentional planting of kudzu to cover over the scars that highways and railroads left on the land is another version of the choice to make money green, using this color to promise stability, comfort, and generativity, making money the same color as nature and new growth, as the wild and untouched places, the very landscapes that money cannibalizes and negates. The green of money isn’t quite the green of anything else, the stain and tracery on crisp twenties or softened, wallet-dwelling ones, on sweaty cash that peels off close to the skin and sticks to tables and floors, that scatters haphazard from purses like feathers. The color of money always feels not-quite-there, like a trick, about to rub off or fade to grey or beige. It’s a green with no life in it, without any of the rebellion of the trees that crowd east coast highways. It’s closer to the desperation of hospital green, or to the deep relieved green in the heart of forests. Money is a living symbol, a thing that needs you to believe in it in order for it to exist. A system of currency functions because enough people collectively buy into a mass delusion, an agreed-upon psychosis, that the cost of opting out of the belief becomes quite literally too high. It’s a symbol that churns itself into truth, a fake that becomes real through insistence and repetition. Green meant something long before America existed or had a currency to print, and yet perhaps today green means growth, and stability, and wealth, and greed, only because money is green. The symbolism flows as much in the other direction; the things we feel about the color are things we feel because we know we are looking at the color of money. * My husband moved from the south to New York to live with me. When his parents call, they ask him if he misses green. People who don’t live here always say that about New York, green standing for all of the natural world, green as the opposite of the skyscraper. “Don’t you miss seeing green?” But green is everywhere here, as artificial as it is abundant. Nothing, not even the highways on the route to Savannah in a thunderstorm, feels as green to me as this city does. When the heart of summer flares over the landscape, all through Manhattan the trees turn green and it makes me feel like a tourist. Nothing is greener to me than this grey barren city where I live, this flattened and rebuilt, over-farmed and over-foraged, brutalized urban place. It’s nothing like the kudzu-greens in the south, and yet when I think of New York, I think first of the color green. I grew up on the West Coast, where summers bake a dry heat over the landscape and everything shrivels and dissolves. To try to flatter it, locals call the summers golden, but they’re really brown, dried out and drained of color, aridly rent of moisture. Even on the rainy days the foliage keeps to itself, hardy and resilient, refusing romance and adjectives. But in the summers, my parents and I would fly out to visit my Dad’s family in Harrisburg, then rent a car and drive to New York to see their old friends in Manhattan. On the drive between the two cities, up the winding Eastern interstates, the trees along the highway and even at the median strip burst a wet, saturated, promiscuous green. That green was the promise of another world where it was summer the way it was supposed to be summer and therefore I might be young the way I was supposed to be young and had never felt young, an unknown place where the rules might be different, where things might be generous and infinite. I wanted to get myself inside of that color, wanted to get my teeth around it, wanted to somehow change my life so I could be swallowed up by that green, so that what it made me feel wouldn’t include the fear that it would be taken away, so that green did not threaten an ending. Color of course has no human desires, no inherent morality; neither does beauty. Humans put narrative to our reactions to beautiful things until the thing and its story are inextricable, a chicken and egg problem, impossible to know where it starts. I still feel same way I did when I was a teenage tourist about the green that wreaths the long blocks around the museum by my house, that riots up and down the median strips of highways, the green that overhangs parking lots and makes a canopy when I lie on my back and the lattice of sunlight and leaves close over my face like water. But all this emotion might mean nothing more than the fact that money is green. I’ve spent a lot of my life in proximity to other people’s wealth. Growing up, my parents both worked at a small, wealthy private prep school—we lived on the campus, in a grand home that didn’t belong to us, part of faculty-issued housing, a fact I never understood until the board of trustees summarily kicked us out of the house during a legal dispute when I was seventeen. In my twenties, I worked as a private tutor for wealthy families, teaching rich children how best to sell themselves to the Ivy League. During those years I often lived in someone else’s house, travelling with the families I worked for and pinballing through airports from one home and one country to another. Green was a constant then, a spiraling, crawling, blossoming thing. The worlds of the wealthy are green worlds. The greens are lush behind walls and gates and stone fortresses, passed down for generations along the neat right angles of lawns and swimming pools that particular almost-green gem-blue that occurs nowhere in nature except in the pool in the backyard at a rich person’s house. In East Hampton, the lawns were green like the purest idea of the color, so that they softened the day, the conversation, the people, the whole apparatus of life around them, giving the place an Edenic sense of newness, as though one had stumbled through a doorway into some hidden elsewhere, untouched by the sins of the ongoing world. On the wide avenues of neighborhoods set back from the beach, trees leaned heavy green canopies over the road and cradled you in a whorling green archway, held in the gentle hands of this color that guided nighttime in slow and forgiving, all neon pinpricks of fireflies. The lawns here looked like velvet, like no one had ever heard of scarcity, of want, of the arid, scratching dirt under lesser landscapes. * Green, of course, is about water. Water is about life, and it’s perhaps the thing we who are lucky enough to have enough of take the most for granted. Dystopian stories often crucially focus on water. In Mad Max: Fury Road, George Miller’s 2015 harrowing vision of a perhaps not very far off future, the landscape is blighted and drained of all moisture; its residents are gaunt and withered, bodies creaking like cheap furniture left out in the sun. This dying landscape is ruled over by a vicious warlord who hoards all the remaining water for himself. The only green in this world is in his labyrinthine lair, the palace he has built for himself that both shuts out and perpetuates the horrors experienced by the general public. Everything inside his walled enclave is saturated, literally dripping. He hoards not just water, and not just verdant green plants absent from the earth below, but also the fertile bodies of women: both very young girls who function as sexual slaves and incubators, and wet nurses, women with overflowing breasts, bursting with fertility. The women inside this monstrous treasure trove are currency as much as the water and the plants are; all of it is a kind of money, and it exists in the same warped, seductive, sickening way that money does in our own world, in the dragon-hordes of our only slightly less outwardly ghoulish overlords. During the car chase that dominates most of the action in Mad Max, the women who are our heroes set out to find “the green place,” a promised land like the land of milk and honey, the place beyond the desert where at last everything is abundant. They never find the green place—it doesn’t exist anymore, we learn in the film’s most heartbreaking reversal, and they must return the way they came to build the green place themselves. But green, in this figuring, represents escape, represents whatever frees us from the demands, consequences, limits, and hard truths of the world in which we live. Coloring the dream of a place that will do this green is part of a long tradition. In the final, triumphant scene of the film, when the rebels take back power, they turn a gigantic faucet on full-blast, and water rains back over the blighted landscape. The camera focuses lovingly on the color green that crawls down the side of the structure where power had been concentrated, seeming to promise that that green will soon disseminate to the people below, and then to the rest of the world. This last scene is a utopian vision of anti-capitalism: the water is money, distributed unregulated and wild to the assembled populace, everything for everyone, and everything free. Money is always green, even when the paper bills aren’t. We think, or at least I think, of green worlds as a forgiving elsewhere, the color wiping a cityscape back to the innocence of its origins, restoring what was here first. Within this dream of re-ordering and rebirth, we are capable of being lost, granted the ability to be unknown, to stay undefined, free of a rigid identity, free of binding declarative markers that map out a human fate. This, also, is the thing that green does to me when it sings out of the park a block away and bleeds a vivid stain down the edges of the highway. It seems to be promising a cocoon in which I could shed the burdens of the accumulated self and be reborn or, better yet, unmade. Green as an oblivion, as a takeover by something larger, unruly and unruled. Northrop Frye, writing about Shakespeare’s comedies, referred to what he called “the green world,” a both real and unreal space that by existing allows the action of the plays to unfold. The green world is often literal—in Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It, the characters vanish into a forest on the edge of town—but also a figurative space beyond the borders of society’s strictures. In the green world, magic exists, and rules do not. Characters within the green world work out their desires and inconsistencies, their questions and their undefined selves, free of the constraints of a watchful society, of a place with laws or limits. They then, crucially, in often-overlooked and almost always tedious fifth acts, re-emerge into that society, having purged themselves of their rebellious impulses. As is so often the case, what seems like a rebirth is really only a process of grooming. Characters go into the green world thinking they are nameless and familyless; they enter despairing of love, or ready to shake off the bonds of society. They re-emerge ready to mate and marry, ready to be visible within the requirements of a patriarchal society. The lost seekers who went into the forest frequently come out having discovered that—surprise!—they’re the ruler of the city or country or society they sought to escape, their namelessness transformed into aristocracy. They run away from the law, then return as its representative and beneficiary. All of those plays in which the green world figures, the Forest of Arden and the fairy realms and the island in The Tempest, are silently about the character’s wealth. Every marriage plot is a story about economics, a parable more of social mobility than of love. The green world is a fantasy of escape, and, like all fantasy, like all escapes, it is offered only to those who can afford it. The high school kids I used to tutor frequently attended summer camp. They lived in the grand, sharp cities of the world but in the summer their parents packed them off to remote idylls, places with wood-walled cabins and horses and art and crafts and lakes for boating and swimming, enclaves in hard to find and gorgeous locations, down remote dirt roads, where green cradled the tents and the picnic tables, where green erupted and embraced imaginary utopias, green like something into which to sink backward. They spent their summers in these imaginary utopias, returning home with stories about friends whom they would only see once a year—camp was meant to be an engineered green world, a controlled wild place that began and ended at the temporal borders of a paid vacation, lifted neatly out of the real world to which it returned them unharmed and essentially unchanged. It was a way to experience something without risking anything in the experience. Summer camp serves the same purpose that a long adolescence does, and the same purposes that Shakespeare’s green worlds do: The safe rebellion, the risk that never touches consequences. The green world is a place built of money and yet it is free of money, too, and in this way it’s entirely about wealth, as the wealthy are the only ones who are able to escape from the grey and consequent prisons of money, the world in which all the corners are defined by lack. Green is a second chance, and while everyone might deserve a second chance, in truth it is often something that can only be purchased with money. * The first Dutch sailors to land on the island not yet named Manhattan called it the greenest place that they had ever seen. Maps and paintings from the time or from not-so-far-afterwards show it as a heartbreakingly verdant place, bursting with saturated foliage, all rivers full of leaping fish and trees offering generous shade. It’s endlessly debatable what the word “Manhattan” actually means, but a number of theories translate it as something close to “green place.” The same people who gave this piece of rock that name, who sighted that green land singing out off the coast of the country and scammed it away from the native people who lived there, who purchased it for the richness of its greens, promptly set about destroying every vestige or possibility of that color, carving the grey stone and wet mud of profit and business out of the green island, until that bright memory seemed impossible. Nearly two hundred years later, in 1858, Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux won a contest to design a large park, in the style of London’s Hyde Park or Paris’ Bois du Bologne, in the center of Manhattan island. At the time, the Romantic notion of Arcadian parks was in high fashion—wealthy aristocrats purchased imitations of nature’s lawlessness, perfect representations of uncontrolled growth, the rigidly constructed fantasy of an unconstructed world. Central Park sprang out of this same tradition, this trend for artificially wild places. Built before the modern skyline, the park was supposed to make its visitors able to believe for a few hours that they were not in the city at all, that they had vanished to the patrician, untamed countryside, offering a fantasy of the out-of-reach luxury of escape, of relief from the city’s pace and crush and ongoings. Vaux and Olmstead repeatedly rejected suggestions that they incorporate European wrought-iron gates at entrances to the park, saying that they wanted the lack of ornate entrances to signal that in this green space “all were welcome, regardless of rank or wealth.” But the space where Central Park would be built already had residents. In 1850, the land was home to a growing community made up mostly of Irish immigrants and formerly enslaved black people. Much of the land was used for farming, and numerous small villages had sprung up around these farms, some building schools, creating their own insular functioning societies. Some of these communities had been in place for more than fifty years, multiple generations living and marrying and growing old and dying, passing on traditions and small joys and sorrows from parents to children. In 1857, the year before Olmstead and Vaux dreamed their democratic park, nearly two thousand people were evicted from the land by the city’s government under eminent domain laws. Whole villages were razed, wiped out to nothing, as though they had never been there at all, to make way for the new green world. In the subsequent building of the park, an elaborately over-budget and red-tape-strewn process from which Olmstead was fired and re-hired multiple times, more gunpowder was used to clear the space where the park would be than was used in the entire battle of Gettysburg. New York kills off its greens and replaces them with a theme park version of exactly the thing it killed. Central Park is in this way perhaps the most perfect expression of the green world, its overwhelming seductions and the lie at its heart, the dream of stability in the color of money, and the violence that that stability requires. Central Park began to decline almost immediately after it was completed; it was massively expensive to keep up, and the government in power at the time simply didn’t care, preferring to spend the money elsewhere and mostly on themselves. The park wasn’t made a priority until the 1930s, when LaGuardia put Robert Moses in charge of its restoration. Moses is one of New York City’s largest-looming villains. He is memorably responsible for tearing down the old, gorgeous Penn Station, and converting it into the grimy eyesore level of hell that it is today. But more importantly, during his long tenure in power, he did everything he could to make the city unlivable for poor and non-white residents. He presided over mass evictions and conversions of low-income housing and immigrant communities into money-making large-scale constructions that shut out those who could not afford to start over, who lacked the means for second chances. He also saved Central Park, and is perhaps more responsible than anyone else for the park as it exists in current iteration, in much the same way Rudy Giuliani is responsible for the present-day family-friendly Times Square. In a single calendar year, Moses turned Central Park from a blighted, neglected waste where greens struggled futilely through dirt and trash and broken benches to a verdant wonderland. Through a relentless militaristic campaign of green, Moses completed Olmstead’s vision. To love Central Park is to tacitly approve of Robert Moses and to approve of the politicians who evicted nearly two thousand people from their homes and razed entire, functioning communities with schools and farms and families in order to create a vision of a green world supposedly free and open to all, who, like the Dutch settlers before them, destroyed a natural world in order to buy and sell a facsimile of one. To visit Central Park and feel for a few hours mercifully free of the sharp edges and ambitions of the grey city around it, to believe in the mathematically exact beauty that this green place offers, is on some level to align oneself with Moses’ vision of the city, or with the gentrifiers who are the inheritors of Moses and of his predecessors in a line stretching back to the original developers of the park and to the Dutch before them. The green spaces are their genius, the honeyed trap they set for the unpersuaded. The park offers a vision of a verdant, utopian escape, but its green is on the side of the autocrats, not the angels. So often this is the reckoning with the green and beautiful things in the world—our idyllic escapes, our havens, were purchased with blood money, created at the expense of other people’s lives. Other homes were destroyed so that we who are privileged enough to access such things might have a temporary escape from ours. Like turning bills green to signal stability, generativity, and comfort, and like painting kudzu over the gashes in the landscape left by empire-building, money papers green over the ugliness at work in its mechanisms, and offers access to that beauty in exchange for accepting the violence that it does. When Central Park fell into disarray again after Moses’ departure, it was cleaned up when the broken windows theory of policing took hold in the mid-1980s. The green world usually has cops at its edges. * Earlier this summer, Lorde’s first big single off her new album Melodrama was the song “Green Light.” Its chorus is childishly simple and infernally catchy: “I’m waiting for it/that green light/I want it.” That last phrase, I want it, is shocking in its bold-faced brattiness, a toddler stomping her feet and throwing a tantrum, I want it I want it I want it. The green light is permission, the go sign, the yes, the open door, the starting pistol. It’s the lawless greed that the green worlds of both youth and money permit, barreling into uncertain choices heedless of the havoc they might wreak. Within the measured and artificial green world of Central Park, the place perhaps closest to this conceptual promise of utopia has historically been The Ramble, which at least once, if not now, was a haven for cruising, a place to have anonymous sex, a place where desire could exist outside of the ordered and admitted narrative of one’s own life. It’s a similar feeling, a similar want, to that glorious, addictive, sticky-fingered adolescent exclamation in Lorde’s song-of-the-summer chorus, that green light/I want it. A certain kind of sex does this, turns everything green, driving out the thoughts of rules, consciences, or good hygiene, bathing everything in a wash of color the shade of abundance and of hospitals, of freedom and of money, want thundering its false promises and drowning out the noise of the world, until everything is nothing but green. [[{"fid":"6701766","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original"},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"media_original"}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]] Perhaps my love of the color green is an indictment of what living up close to others people’s money for so long has done to me, the consequences of placing myself in this same situation over and over again. I have set up shop right at the borders of the walled garden, have made myself too available to the songs the sirens are singing. I understand deeply and intimately, like a knife at the bottom of my stomach, why the color of money is green. I understand why the treasury chose to keep the color, to perpetuate the longings for the safety, the softness, the green-blanketed escapes that only money affords, the place where sound dims and recedes. I can see how this want—for sex, for money, for a small, safe permitted place outside laws and consequences—warps people’s ability to care for one another. I can see all of this and I can still desperately thirst to be let into the green, the place up in the warlord’s mountain where all the water is kept. It would be a lie to say I want to open the faucet on the waiting populace; first I want to go up there all alone, into the hoarded green world, and put my face in the water, all for me until it makes me sick, nothing but green and silence. Although I don’t know this for sure, I always imagine that green is associated with hospitals for the same reason it is associated with money and road-building: because it offers a desperate optimism, an aching hope of escape. That optimism is terrifying, like the optimism of payday, the giddy high-wire feeling of spending money without looking at your bank account balance, the split-second buoyancy when dollars rain from the ceiling. It’s the kind of blind hope that breaks people against the rocks beneath it, that ruins people’s lives. I love green things because I am scared of them and because I mistrust them. I know that I am fundamentally not allowed inside the green world and there’s nothing we love more than the door we can’t open, the light that won’t change to green, the place which would unlock all the permissions, a whole world of second chances, the secret garden, the green place.
‘Being a Woman is Inherently Uncanny’: An Interview With Carmen Maria Machado

The author of Her Body and Other Parties on writing the fantastical, existing in the periphery and blueprints of the past. 

A wife refuses her husband’s request to remove the green ribbon tied eternally around her neck. A store clerk realizes there are girls sewn into the dresses she sells. A woman recalls her sexual encounters as a plague consumes the world. The world of Carmen Maria Machado is bright and bizarre, full of magic and haunted places. Much of Machado’s short fiction centers on the unexpected, the swerve into the night vision of a woman who is really a witch and just remembered to tell you. In Machado’s debut short story collection Her Body and Other Parties (Graywolf Press), recently nominated for a National Book Award and the Kirkus Prize, she weaves the real with the fantastic until the ordinary becomes sinister and the other way around.  Lyra Kuhn: When did you first become interested in fabulism? Carmen Maria Machado: I think my interest in fabulism has come to me in stages. As a child, I was drawn to fabulist writing through kid’s lit—fantasy (A Wrinkle in Time) and science fiction (Ray Bradbury) and horror (Lois Duncan, John Bellairs), cut with metafiction (Sideways Stories from Wayside School) and absurdism (Roald Dahl). As a teenager, I was lucky enough to have a particular teacher who gave me books to read from her personal library, like One Hundred Years of Solitude, which was my first exposure to magical realism. And I had a third, important stage right after I began grad school, and fellow students began recommending writers to me who have since become the backbone of my personal canon: Kelly Link, Karen Russell, George Saunders, Nicholson Baker, Helen Oyeyemi, Alice Sola Kim, Sofia Samatar, Shirley Jackson, Angela Carter. This final stage was the push I needed for my own work; I realized these were the types of stories that spoke the most intensely to me, and reflected something I wanted to do in my own fiction. How does your identity as queer and Latina affect your writing? I think writing is inextricable from the body; there’s no such thing as pure reason, pure intellect. My body, my identity, is a lens through which I can view the world and reflect it back in my work. This is true for every artist. Do you think the body is a source of horror? Do you think bodies can become haunted?  I do! Bodies are terrifying; they’re powerful and fragile, bloody and imperfect, uncanny, impressionable vehicles that carry our minds from birth until death. And of course they’re inherently haunted. Haunting is a kind of impression; a lingering effect from a physical act like a shoeprint or a cloud of perfume left the in air. In the same way, bodies carry trauma and choices of our ancestors. Our DNAs are blueprints of the past. Is there a particular approach you take when writing a fabulist story, an alchemical process of sorts?  Not really. Most stories come together in the same way for me—in pieces, images, impressions, and concepts that I have to gather together into something cohesive. Whether or not the story is fabulist is pretty incidental to the process. There is an image in the book that hasn’t left me for some time—when the narrator from the story “Real Women Have Bodies” first describes the disease that makes women disappear, then later realizes the terrible secret about the dresses in the shop. Where did the crux of this story come from? At the Coralville Mall, right next to Iowa City, there was a black-walled, seasonal-prom-dress store called Glam. I walked past it one day, and thought Wow, that’d be a great setting for a story. I’d been mainlining a lot of fabulism around that time—I think I’d just finished Karen Russell’s St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves—and so I tried to imagine what kind of horrors could happen there. I don’t know how I arrived at the faded women being stitched into the dresses, but I imagine it had to do with the fact that the dresses already looked like they were occupied by invisible bodies. The story unfurled from there, though it’s old enough that it was heavily rewritten on a sentence level before appearing in Her Body and Other Parties. How do you move between the real and the unreal in your stories? I don’t think of them as particularly separate; the scrim between them is barely there. So it’s not difficult: I look at the world around me and push into it, just a little. Why do you think so many women writers turn to the uncanny, such as yourself, Kelly Link, Karen Russell, and so on? I think there are probably lots of reasons, but one of them is that being a woman is inherently uncanny. Your humanity is liminal; your body is forfeit; your mind is doubted as a matter of course. You exist in the periphery, and I think many women writers can’t help but respond to that state. You’ve said before that you have an obsession with lists. Could you make a list of stories or books that have had a great impact on you? Sure! Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and The Lottery and Other Stories, Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, Kelly Link’s Stranger Things Happen and Magic for Beginners, Alissa Nutting’s Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls, Karen Russell’s St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, Nicholson Baker’s Mezzanine and Vox.