Categories
Poetry

Three Week Old Adult

by Camille Pass | Poetry | Fall 2017

Image by Emily Rogers

There is loneliness in subdivided headings and columns but there is also a space with frozen margaritas and hands rubbing your back. Many love languages later you decide what’s best on the yellow quilt. Many love languages later, it’s the little things that get you, the lights being put up in your apartment or an offering of soup. When the little things are given they are gone and so are the little parts of you. There is so much time left and elapsed that it holds to your pinky toes that you suddenly become very aware of in damp boots. Kissing is pretty gross but so is asking to be loved. Especially when you try speaking to the lakes that come rushing by minutes apart on the highway out the passenger window. Socked feet in the sunny spot on the dashboard we keep throttling a dead chicken with these questions.

These days night dreams get scarier and scarier and you have to walk around for a bit in the apartment to remind interlocking limbs where things are and that she is dead now. She died in your mother’s arms in the house you grew up in. Not the house in the neighborhood that they once dubbed, “Jew Town,” but the one that still technically you belong to. Her legs crumpled on the gravel—it is our fault. She loved to sleep and sleep she did in my mother’s arms because that’s what you do when you are ready to go. “We didn’t want to ruin your Friday night” because that’s all I live for here in the tundras of Ohio, another beer in the same bar. Childhood ends with the death of your childhood pet, and I am a fresh three week-ed adult.

Resistant to change and the weather my mother decided that grass wasn’t fit for Southern California and though this was met with applause by the neighbors the short limbs on her daughter’s long terriered body would no longer find support in the lawn holes burned by her piss. I memorized the view of a second story window in my teen years believing in the foreverness of moments and the witch’s house next door—no one in or out except family and loud children on Sundays to use the pool. Immortalizing the gnarled tree in the front yard splitting into two still self-sustaining lives. I painted and I sang songs out the window collecting the parts of myself to give to others thinking they were important, thinking I was bigger than my twin sized bed.

They chopped the limbs off last year when the witch died and the corner property was finally up for sale. We walked by dusk purple in bare feet, I never put her on a leash especially when there was nowhere to go. She acknowledged her freedom by taking her time with each tree and turning around occasionally to see that my body was still there. We raced for the last stretch of block around the corner to the peeling grey back gate every time, even when she shouldn’t have been running.

Rituals persist in the life of a household dog, hours at a time outside spread on her belly with her snout poking out through the crack in the fence and the concrete. My father, the most emotionally insulated or stunted member of the family shed a tear the morning after when he turned on the kitchen lights and made coffee without her. In her old age she never wanted to be touched. In a way I believe that it was because she didn’t want us to feel the bones coming through. Very far away, I settle into my bed knowing she left us at home. I think about how my home will probably be the next corner lot to go after the witch’s house.

I told a fortune teller my problems at the bar the next night. Choosing to write on an intricate questionnaire form in capital letters rather than checking off boxes for what I thought was wrong with me: LOVE HURTS. She thought I was probably referring to the numbskull boy to my left and the current running between our fingers, but that couldn’t have been farther from the truth. I had been talking about the kind of love that starts on your sixth birthday and dies after your twenty-first. She made me pull out a card from her tarot deck and laughed as she read the word “success” out loud. Almost scoffing she told me, “Y’know maybe I’m reading it wrong” and sipped her third mixed drink. She asked me how old I was and I told her three weeks since my childhood dog died. Then she adjusted her wig pulling it higher over her scalp and giggled a little scratching words onto a faded prescription pad. I walked away and read it to myself. She just wrote: “Chill the fuck out,” and she’s probably right.

Categories
The Bawdy Politic

Transgender Cartography

by Maxwell Van Cooper | The Bawdy Politic | Fall 2017

Images by Brad Boboc

“I just don’t understand why you have to box yourself into
these categories. I mean, aren’t we all just human? Why do
you have to label yourself like that?”
A family member at dinner, Christmas Eve, 2016.
Lasts approximately three hours.

Maxwell is a family name. My uncle has it, my grandmother has it, her father… I don’t know its origin story. My mother wanted to give it to me as a middle name, as tradition, but also so that if I ever wanted to be a writer, I would have a pen name at hand. Its origin story for me really began at age sixteen, when I went by Max for the first time. I wore baggy clothes until my then-boyfriend informed me tight clothes were sexier. I stopped immediately. I never thought I wanted to be a boy. I knew my favorite characters were Alanna from Tamora Pierce’s novels and Viola from She’s the Man. But I loved dresses, so none of this meant anything, of course.

I tried Sophie again in college because I felt so detached from and alienated by this mysterious concept of womanhood. I desperately wanted to be a girl. I had always been feminine, so it was fine. It was totally fine—and then it wasn’t. Dysphoria is like a slow burn, or a month-long itch that you can’t scratch—it’s there in your most vulnerable moment, constantly teetering at the periphery of your brain. But that’s not what made me trans. The queer and trans culture at Oberlin that I so desperately needed, that so openly embraced me and said it’s okay: That’s not what made me trans. I actually rejected the word transgender for the first two years after I came out as non-binary. Maybe it was too foreign, too assertive. Maybe because I still liked dresses, which I still connected with womanness. But it was also because in my head, I saw transgenderism as something painful, something that was etched into history with violence and oppression. It didn’t feel like my place, as a white upper-middle-class queer gallivanting around Oberlin calling themself a twink, to hold the weight of that word—or maybe I didn’t want it.

And yet there is something about the word transgender that is so enticing in its mysteriousness, so embracing and transgressive. I found myself questioning what the word meant, and what it meant for my own gender-straying. I found myself interpolated in the word by my own standards, my community, and institutions of cis/heteronormativity. A word bent on defiance.

But the limits of the word seemed to elude me and many people within my community. We all knew what it meant, and yet some people were using it as an umbrella term for anything outside of cisgender, whereas some of my non-binary and trans friends were saying that it made them uncomfortable to see it used in such broad definition, for people whose experiences they couldn’t relate to. Then there were people like me, who were scared to recognize the potential of the word.

It wasn’t that we were all confused. The word’s definition is elusive through its history. But through its conception, we can trace why radically different people are adopting the word transgender, and how this miscommunication occurs.

“So you want to be a man?”
“No, not quite.”
“So you want to be a woman?”
“No, not exactly.”
“So you’re trying to become a man?”
“Um.”
Encounter with Planned Parenthood doctor while trying to
get T, August 18, 2017.
Lasts approximately fifteen minutes.

***

The Transgender Dilemma

Transgender as a word and concept has swiftly ascended into contemporary popular terminology. As early as the ’60s, trans people coined the word to counter the medicalized term transsexual, and by the early ’90s, trans activists such as Leslie Feinberg helped popularize the word to describe people who did not identify as transsexual, but were not cisgender either. Transgender became an umbrella term for gender nonconforming individuals. Yet as the word transsexual became obsolete due to its problematic context and history, transgender came to replace transsexual in the everyday American’s vocabulary. For the general public, transgender individuals resided within a traditional binary of gender. Transgenderism was still considered to be a “crossing of borders,” from one end of the binary to the other: FTM or MTF.

Jack Halberstam writes in his essay, “Transgender Butch,” “A common metaphor for transsexualism is a crossing of national borders from one place to another, from one state to another, from one gender to another.” Halberstam is able to situate the polemic of the border-crossing mythology, but he also points to the dangers of using border-crossing as a metaphor, since immigration is a real and lived experience for many people. He cautions “against detaching the metaphors of travel and home and migration from the actual experience of immigration in a world full of borders.”

Especially in the age of “Deporter-In-Chief” Obama, and then Trump’s America, we have begun to normalize a world in which ICE unlawfully barges into homes, families are separated, and children are kept in detention centers. Now more than ever we must be wary of the idea of border-crossing as a metaphor for transgenderism, because the transitory nature of transgenderism does not parallel the reality of the dangers of crossing borders and immigration.

Furthermore, using the border-crossing analogy for transgender folk situates them on one side or the other, and neglects the people caught in between: “If the borderlands are uninhabitable for some transsexuals who imagine that home is just across the border, imagine what a challenge they present to those subjects who do not believe that such a home exists, either metaphorically or literally… Some bodies are never at home, some bodies cannot simply cross from A to B, some bodies recognize and live with the inherent instability of identity.”

The transgressive non-conforming people did find words specifically for these shared experiences caught in the borderlands. As words such as ‘gender-queer’ and ‘non-binary’ became prevalent in the early naughts, many queer individuals came to consider other words to describe the experience of gender outside a binary, and transgender became more and more equated with the border-crossing ideology. However, many trans and non-binary people still use transgender as a general term for gender deviance.

When I was writing “Dialogues on Gender” for Wilder Voice in 2015, I found a number of people with startlingly different conceptions of the word trans. But each use was so emotional, and so personal to their own experience, that they were difficult to reconcile. Because I didn’t identify as trans at the time, they were not mine to question. But I did start asking more trans friends if the umbrella term bothered them. The feedback I received, like our trans history, is controversial.

What isn’t controversial is a shared commonality in the formulation of gender identities that lay outside the norm. These genders are actualized first through self-recognition. However, in performing and identifying through non-conforming genders, some people are privileged with safety (through cis-passing), and others are not. Some experience body dysphoria, some will have to take on extensive financial burdens for hormones and surgeries, and others will not. The visibility of transness creates a hierarchy of whose voices we listen to, who we deem desirable, and who is accepted in cis or trans culture. We try to be critical of this, to consider which voices we privilege above others. But ultimately that hierarchy often shifts to white, ableist, and cis-normative standards and voices to take the space to be recognized, to be heard. Cis people are all aware of Caitlyn Jenner or Ruby Rose, but have never heard of Sylvia Rivera, Miss Major, Leslie Feinberg, Carlett Brown, Paul Preciado, or Marsha P. Johnson—all activists and theorists who fought for trans rights and recognition. Without these trans icons, many of us wouldn’t be able to live our truth today, and yet still, many trans people even do not know their names.

This problem of visibility, acceptance, and recognition has dominated the politics and ideology of the word trans. Ironically, Oberlin students reside within an epistemological binary of the word transgender. We remain divided between a structuralist binary (I am and you aren’t) or the invalidation of different experiences through hegemonic universalism (we are all the same by virtue of being transgressive). I aim to complicate these conceptions of the word transgender with a new framework, one of transgender cartography. By thinking of transgenderism as a fluid state of migration, we not only trouble the concept of border crossing, but also conceptualize how non-binary and transgender identities hold different places in challenging cis-normativity, while there is no real disunion between them.

“So you’re all lesbians?”
“Actually I’m transgender.”
“So you identify as… what?”
“A trans dude. Not a man exactly.”
“But what do you identify as?”
“What?”
Conversation with friendly TERF butch at the
International Gay Rodeo, October 21, 2017.
Lasts approximately twenty minutes.

***

Subverting the Homeland

Poetry, tea packaging, and yoga studios all like to tell us our body is our home. For transgender and non-binary individuals, this idea of the body as the center of the home is problematic. Both transgender and non-binary people share a similar origin story: They were born into a world with assigned genders that marked them as XX or XY. These centers of origin politically informed them with forms of habitus: cultural habits that inform our language, our posture, the way we sit, dress, interact with each other—all forms of gender embodiment we can find stem from this false origin story. For some people this narrative will always snugly fit, or they will find their own subtle subversions and defiances: the tomboy, the twink, etc. Others take a more direct approach in which they either subvert their origin story in its entirety or migrate away from the homeland.

Home must be problematized. Halberstam writes, “If home has represented the comfort of place and the politics of location and the stability of belonging within such a dialectic, the border has stood for the politics of displacement, the hybridity of identity, and the economics of undocumented labor. There is little to be gained theoretically or materially from identifying either home or border as the true place of resistance. […] Home is a mythic site, a place to anchor some racial and ethnic identities even as those identities are wrenched out of context or pressured into assimilation.”

Before we depart from home, as a non-binary trans person I hope to make clear that this does not negate a shared experience or the multitude of ways that trans and non-binary people develop their identities. We’re not in the business of working within binaries. However, distinctions and clarity within language are crucial to our ability to describe those intersections and gaps in their full weight and complexity.

The transgender individual migrates away from their falsely proclaimed “home.” But the non-binary individual, rather than engage in this performative spatial transit, subverts their origin story. It does not matter if they do not change their performance from their assigned gender through clothing, body language, or other codes of gender. To the cis eye, they may not externally be recognizable as trans: incognito transgressors. For non-binary people, the subversion of the home does not appear through external values, but internally. By defying the binary they are able to make “masculine” and “feminine” bodies, styles, and definitions meaningless.

For the transgender individual, a migration emerges when the subject begins transitioning and challenging their former home to conflate with new queer and trans habitus, language, and culture that they create or discover. They embark on a migration across space, ascending nationality and heteronormativity, to discover a new corporeal site that locates their gender embodiment. They reconstitute their subjecthood by reconstructing the first words they hear, Congratulations, it’s a

The transgender corporeal site is always moving, always transitioning, always humming. It is neither static nor structured, but a fluid evolving landscape that the trans subject roams through, in between spaces and nations, uninterrupted but for the heteronormative interference of American society. This new site’s impermanence is significant. While some transgender people may consider their gender static, many express movement and queerness as a dynamic destabilized ontology. Furthermore, this new site may incorporate many cultural phenomena of the former “home:” Trans people may operate or use many heteronormative behaviors or beliefs, and that doesn’t challenge their transness, because it is appropriated and subverted to fit their new ontological site of being.

“Why do you need to box yourself in? Why do you have to
announce yourself like that to the world?”
“For the same reason you do.”
Friendly TERF butch at the International Gay Rodeo,
October 21, 2017.
Lasts approximately twenty minutes.

***

Transgender Cartography

The prefix trans means across, beyond, on the far side of, on the other side of, or on the outside of. Even linguistically we see migration and movement. Transgender subjects move away from their origin or home to a new ontological site that is not mapped by traditional conceptions of gender or established borders and nationality. Transgender individuals leave their citizenship of XX and XY, and live beyond the confines of heteronormative society. Citizenship in America is constituted in a capitalist framework, the primary unit of capitalism being (re)production, which queer and many trans people inherently fail successfully participate in. Neoliberal philosophy in particular is centered to focus on the individual and around the nuclear family—crafted heteronormative roles and hierarchies that trans and queer individuals likewise subvert or reside outside of. If citizenship is constituted in heteronormative, nationalist, legally binding terms, then the transgender subject resides as an outlaw to the state and nationalism—that is to say, trans people are not confined by nationality or borders in their creation of cartography. By not recognizing colonial arbitrary lines in maps that act as violent borders in their own cartography, transgender people are able to attempt to subvert neocolonialism.

Furthermore, a fundamental aspect of colonialism was the exportation of Western gender roles to colonized countries. Even the word “transsexual” was imported to countries through the DSM, and constituted a form of gender deviance that erased many peaceful gender variances in non-Western countries. The weight of colonialist gender norms has informed our conceptions of the nuclear family and contemporary heteronormativity. Transness becomes an active, subversive departure: It is inherently anti-colonial to resist these gender norms, to resist colonial artifacts of borders and maps, to move through uncharted territory without claiming ownership.

Through their transitioning (which never really starts or ends in a linear sense, but rather erupts and shifts throughout their lives) transgender individuals go beyond figurative and literal borders to find their new corporeal sites. This may lead them physically to different countries, such as Thailand (the most popular destination for gender affirming surgeries). It may physically mean traveling across countries and states to access hormones, to find community, to find their own subjecthood. It also may mean staying physically exactly where they already are, but transcending figurative heteronormative and colonialist structures and borders. Shifting and twisting, reaching and growing, the transgender subject transitions to create their own melding of gendered habitus, externally or internally. In this way, each transgender person is their own cartographer, creating maps that do not rely on arbitrary violent lines of colonialism but travel across new networks and ontological sites.

In terms of navigation, we can use the work of two foundational queer theorists, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s framework of striated and smooth space, to consider the bordered land of nations and heteronormativity compared to the fluid space the transgender individual inhabits. Striated muscle presents tissue in semi-parallel lines, each with a clear and strict pathway and uninhabited spaces in between. Striated space can be seen as state-held space, formed through fixed landmarks and centers; it is marked with homogeneity through industrialization and globalization. Smooth space, on the other hand, is fluid, open, and allows for nomadic movement, organic pathways like those seen in nature. Cities and borders could be considered striated space, spaces that designate the area that people are able to pass through, spaces only accessible by state-sanctioned entry points, while smooth space is uninterrupted and fluctuating, such as a plain or a desert. There is no origin or point of entry allotted—it is open-ended and extensive. This methodology is useful for understanding the smooth space the transgender subject occupies, and the striated space that the state and heteronormativity represent as interference that transgender subjects must navigate around.

The terrain of transgender topography may have ridges, valleys, and mountain ranges that create challenges in a transgender subject’s migration, but it is also marked with the smooth land, with no pathways in sight, no highways or intersections to be seen. The transgender subject moves through space in queer time, not marked linearly by birth, puberty, marriage, children, and death, but through rebirth, second puberties, finding communities, gender disruption and variance. Transgender people move through their own Foucaultian genealogical time framework—events disrupting linear time, repetition without origin, movement against a teleological narrative.

We don’t see our own cartography from the perspective of a person surveying a map; we are living, fucking, breathing, and shitting our own cartography, marking the map through the various realizations and performances of gender, etching our way through the intersections of our identities. Our cartography may overlap, we may share similar roads, but all diverge into their own locales. The geography of these maps is not broken up by borders but by natural pathways, and in this way transgender cartography subverts colonial barriers and arbitrary borders. Transgender individuals live in a diaspora of gender, having left their homeland and engaging in new and alien terrain, passing through striated space that they cannot assimilate into. They are dispelled by their place of origin and many cannot return, but transfer cultural identity codes to their ontological sites, and in this way, keep moving, keep growing.

Another way to think of these pathways is as a rhizome. A rhizome is a bulbous root plant, but Deleuze and Guattari use the rhizome as a metaphor with multiple chains, entrances, and branches connected to a center. It is the multiplicity of the rhizome’s branches that is key: “There are no points or positions in a rhizome, such as those found in a structure, tree, or root. There are only lines.” The smaller lines branching off can be seen as “lines of flight” that signify ruptures in multiplicity, “[extending] the line of flight to the point it becomes an abstract machine covering the entire plane of consistency.”

If we think of transgender space through cartography, we see pathways or rhizomatic branches and intersections emerge. The multiplicity of rhizomes lends itself to the various assemblages of trans movement across space. The rhizome is the rhythm that leaves etchings across the map as trans people journey and create their transgender cartography. While some branches or pathways may appear from a distance as highways, or shared experiences of performing transness, others digress into lines of flight, or their own individual paths. A trans person may meet another trans person and see the commonalities in their journey—perhaps two people begin taking estrogen at the same time—but ultimately individuals recognize one another. They move onward in their own voyage, finding unfamiliar landscapes that constitute their gender.

It is too simplistic to say transgender people cross borders. It also is a disservice to the stories of cis and trans people who must literally cross over these real and violent borders, who embark to new nations.

The border-crossing analogy echoes colonial exploration—who has the privilege to leave home and to return, versus those who remain trapped in the borderlands. Transgender people do not cross over borders; their gender resides outside of these borders, beyond colonial maps. Transgender people are their own cartographers, mapping their journey through lines of flight, weaving new smooth spaces in gendered terrain unseen to the cis eye.

am I hard
enough (???)
am I curved
or jagged am I
woman
enough (???)
                                                            will you burn me at the stake (???)
                        interjection
have you heard about the diaspora (???)

—Kai Joy, “diaspora (Have you heard ::: (???))”

Neither language nor space is apolitical. There is always the “who” at play: Who dictates what is correct or proper language? Who is anointed with the power to define others? Who creates lines across land and calls them borders? Who is allowed to cross these lines, and who is not? In both language and space, there are positions of power to be held, and privileged voices that attempt to segregate space and classify language. As the theorist Costica Bradatan says, “The power to give names to things, as those crushed by it know only too well, is among the greatest powers that there are: What you do, what you’ve been doing all your life—even the name of your calling—is something others who have that power can decide.”

The naming of the self is a crucial part of transgender and non-binary identities. It is recognition of the self as other that separates us from cisgender identities. We name our individual selves the moment we recognize this discursive identity. It is this power that we—the transgender community—hold, and must hold, for cisgender people will try to disparage and dismiss this power. They have attempted to strip us of it. They have used medicalized frameworks to tell us we are sick, they have used vulgar language to belittle and harm us. It is not up to cisgender people to name us.

The power of language coexists with space. Geography may inform our “mother” tongue, neocolonialism may force imperial languages down others’ throats. We have seen the resistance though, through multilingual diasporas, through the recordings and teaching of vanishing languages. Space and language are not isolated from one another, and I hope to challenge the institutionalized frameworks of neocolonialism through a new conception of what language can mean and what abolishing borders can look like.

This essay is not to designate the “right” framework of how to think of transgenderism versus non-binary identities, but rather to provide an alternative to the messy and confusing history of transgender language. We need to own our linguistic history, because it defines our contemporary reality. “All awareness is a linguistic affair” is a pragmatist slogan used by Wilfrid Sellars. If language constructs our awareness and augments our reality, then it is imperative that we understand the historical and political context of the word transgender, and that we are thoughtful about the hierarchical nature of whose voices are upheld as trans. We need to acknowledge our own hierarchies, of whose voice we privilege, of who we give the space to speak. We need to acknowledge that transgenderism is only one facet of identity our community members hold, and that race, class, nationality, citizenship, and disabilities also constitute how we interact with our gender and with others’. Most of all, we must be critical of the language we use, of the naming we give each other.

If history cannot define transgenderism for us, it is up to us, gender outlaws and incognito transgressors, to define it. 􏰆􏰇􏰄􏰉􏰑􏰇􏰆􏰀􏰉 􏰀􏰊􏰍􏰇􏰒􏰑􏰊􏰂􏰒􏰀􏰉

Categories
Town & Gown

At Their Mercy

by Olivia Fountain | Town & Gown | Fall 2017

Drawings by Anna Johnson

When I self-diagnosed my first UTI in July of 2014, I drank the requisite cranberry juice, felt better, and moved on. It was the summer between my sophomore and junior year, and I was living in Oberlin, working as a research assistant for the Classics Department. About a week after the first signs of my UTI, I realized that it had not been eradicated—I experienced extreme stomach pain, and made the decision to go to Mercy Allen Hospital for pain medication and antibiotics. It was after 8:00 PM and I knew I couldn’t spend the night like that, so I went to the emergency room. I took a selfie in the waiting room to send to my parents, and in it I look pale, but okay.

As I ricocheted from the front desk to the admitting nurse to the doctor who eventually saw me, I said the same things: That I hurt but I knew why and that I was pale but okay. After collecting a urine sample but before informing me of my results, my doctor told me that he was worried that I had kidney stones and that he wanted to give me a CT scan. I was scared and in pain so I consented. I didn’t have kidney stones. They’re rare, though becoming more common in nineteen-year-olds. A few weeks later, my family received a bill for nearly $1,000 of what my insurance refused to pay for, citing an unnecessary procedure. According to Mercy’s website, CT scans for outpatients cost between $1,418 and $1,954; urine samples are covered with the cost of an emergency room visit.

I felt like Mercy had taken advantage of my pain by implying that I had kidney stones and pushing an expensive procedure. I felt like my doctor had violated my trust by not believing me when I told him what I thought was wrong. In the aftermath of my emergency room visit, I talked to many Oberlin students, and it seemed like everyone had a story about Mercy. Most of them were negative. Why were so many of my peers feeling unsatisfied and underserved when they found themselves needing to receive medical attention? That question prompted this article. I wanted to learn more about Mercy and its relationship with Oberlin College and Oberlin students. To be honest, I wanted to find a smoking gun—to be able to conclude my piece with a definitive statement saying “Mercy is a predatory institution for these reasons.”

***

Spoiler: I found no smoking gun. What I did find, after talking with representatives from Mercy and Student Health, interviewing students, and combing through the Oberlin archives, is complicated, nebulous, and inconclusive. Everyone that I’ve spoken to has been kind and accommodating. I struggled—am still struggling—with how to square the stories of inadequate treatment with the earnestness of Student Health and Mercy. However, I did find some alarming information about Mercy Lorain, as well as disturbing statistics on emergency rooms in health facilities nationwide. What I hope that I’ve done here is lay out some of this information in a way that may not be conclusive but is at least coherent.

I’ll start with the history.

The city of Oberlin has 8,300 permanent residents, with the population swelling to around 11,000 during the academic year. It’s unusual for a community of this size to have a hospital, and yet Oberlin is home to Mercy Allen—a sprawling one-story health facility close to the center of town. Mercy is run by Mercy Health, a private, non-profit organization affiliated with the Catholic Church that operates in Ohio and Kentucky. Though there is no current official affiliation between Oberlin College and Mercy, the two institutions have long, intertwined histories.

The earliest iteration of the hospital opened its doors in 1907, after years of concern from the community over lack of available healthcare in the immediate area. It was also in the College’s best interest to have a hospital nearby, with Oberlin President John Barrows pointing out that college kids were highly susceptible to pneumonia, typhoid, and scarlet fever. The money to build the Oberlin Hospital came in 1906, when a group of Oberlin residents organized a campaign asking everyone to donate 5 dollars (approximately 125 dollars today) and successfully generated the funds for the facilities that the college and community both desired. In 1914, Dudley Peter Allen (Class of 1875), a doctor in Oberlin, donated $100,000 to upgrade the facilities. His wife, Elisabeth Severance Prentiss Allen, gave another $50,000 to finish the project after he passed away the following year. Their joint contribution funded the Allen Memorial Hospital, which was owned by the college and opened in 1925. The hospital passed back into the city’s hands in 1954 and stayed that way until the end of the 20th century, but Oberlin College continued to nominate and appoint members to the Board of Trustees until the late ’90s, when a major shift took place.

In 2000, the hospital had lost $6 million and was prepared to declare bankruptcy, but an eleventh-hour deal between Allen Memorial, the city of Oberlin, and Oberlin College kept the doors open. The city, which owned the land on which the hospital is located, donated it to the hospital. The hospital sold the land to Oberlin College for $2 million, and the College then leased it back to the hospital at a rate of one dollar per year until 2075. The deal provided the hospital with the cash it needed to remain functional, and came with some important stipulations. First, the hospital needed to bring in an outside contractor to manage operations—enter Community Health Partners (CHP), then-parent company of (now merged with) Mercy Health. CHP guaranteed a credit line of an additional $2 million, and in turn it was agreed that CHP would ultimately merge with Allen Memorial Hospitalafter a trial period of management (the second stipulation). Oberlin College would no longer have any presence on the Board of Trustees. The official merger came in 2003. Articles in both the Oberlin Review and the Oberlin News Tribune indicate that the larger Oberlin community was suspicious of the merger, which lacked transparency because of a series of secret board meetings, and a closed-door meeting between hospital president Ed Oley and then-president of Oberlin College, Nancy Dye. Though the college still owns the land, all official ties between the school and the hospital were severed in 2000. But as the meeting with Dye in 2003 shows, the College was still invested in the wellbeing of the hospital.

The 2000 transfer of power resulted in nearly 70 layoffs and the elimination of the birthing unit that had been operating in the hospital since its inception. Under CHP’s leadership, however, the hospital was once again financially solvent. In a 2001 Ideastream article titled “Hospital Crisis Profile: Saving the Oberlin Medical Center” (Allen Memorial was renamed in 2000, before the budgeting drama), reporter Karen Schaefer describes the hoped-for trajectory for the newly operational facilities: “The plan is to expand some revenue-generating services—like surgery, CTs and CAT scans—while at the same time offering more insurance provider options to physicians and patients.” That plan is perhaps, in part, why I found myself ushered into a wheelchair and rushed to a CT scan to check for kidney stones. My story is not the only one I have heard about the allegations of unnecessary CT scans during emergency room visits. Jordan Ecker ’17 told me about a time during his freshman year when his doctor recommended a scan after administering a muscle relaxant and a sedative to stop him from vomiting. He felt like he was too sedated to understand what was being offered.

“They gave me a muscle relaxant to stop the vomiting and a shot of something else,” he said. “The net effect of the drugs was to relax my muscles, and it did—the nausea went away right away but I also felt super sleepy. So, I was sleepy and in a bed and they left me alone for I don’t know how long… and at some point they come back, it’s a guy with a chart, he asks me a bunch of questions, I don’t really understand, and he’s like, ‘We think you should get a CAT scan.’ And at that point I was pretty much just drugged up beyond belief and really exhausted and hardly awake, so I said ‘Okay.’ And I got a CAT scan while I was coming in and out of sleep and then they wheeled me back.”

When I spoke to Sue Bowers, the president of Mercy Allen from 2006 to 2011, she also brought up the CT scan machine. Bowers has worked at different iterations of the Allen Memorial since the ’70s, and was the head of nursing at Allen Memorial during the 2000-2001 transition. After her reign as president, she now serves as Mercy’s chief quality officer. I asked her about the transition—she told me to call it a “transition,” not a “takeover” during our phone interview.

“We closed the maternity unit and then also closed what was our skilled nursing unit at the time,” said Bowers. “And then Ed Oley [hospital president] and myself [sic] and a lot of the people at Community Health Partners worked to restore the services that the community needed. We put in a new CT scan machine, and the emergency department was woefully undersized, so we constructed a new emergency department that brought a lot of physicians and surgeons.” CHP was able to bring the nearly bankrupt hospital, which plays such a crucial role in the community, back from the brink—which is undeniably a good thing. However, the influx of revenue that Oley was able to bring to the hospital came in part from expensive new procedures and the elimination of departments that were not as financially viable.

***

On the other end of the spectrum, I also received complaints of mis-diagnoses or under-diagnoses during visits to Mercy. After going to the emergency room with severe back pain, Kellianne Doyle ’19 told me that her doctor “just prescribed me two different types of drugs, had me [lie] in the bed for an hour, and then dismissed me. He said it was just a muscle spasm, and said I didn’t need an X-ray or anything. The pain persisted for the rest of the semester, and when I talked to my doctor at home he had me get an MRI, and we found out I had two split discs in my back.”

Maya Elany ’17 also received a very serious misdiagnosis after she got hit by a car while biking in the fall of her freshman year. The accident occurred right before she was scheduled to travel home for Fall Break, and the paramedics who arrived on the scene recommended that she go to the emergency room immediately—flying with a broken bone can lead to blood clots and other complications. In the ER, she sat for some X-rays and was released soon after with a prescription for pain medication. “They told me that it was going to hurt a lot today and even more the next day, but by the third day it was going to feel better.” She didn’t feel better. “I flew home that day, walked on it—they didn’t give me any crutches—walked on it for three days, on the third day I went to see a specialist in Boston and they told me that I was going to need to get surgery pretty immediately. Six days later I got surgery on my knee. My femur had crashed down onto my tibia and depressed it seven millimeters and also tore my meniscus. They put a plate and five screws in there and I was on crutches for four months, but I couldn’t really do anything for over a year afterwards.” Elany told me that she was happy that she had seen a specialist, not only because they were able to perform the surgery she needed, but also because she hadn’t taken her pain seriously before getting a second opinion. She had doubted what her own body was telling her because she trusted what the doctors at Mercy told her.

***

On the phone, Bowers was brisk and professional. I had emailed her in advance to give her an idea of the questions I wanted to ask, and she told me she would not answer anything related to the hospital’s revenue or specific services. She told me that people from Mercy and people from Oberlin College meet periodically about “issues.” When I pressed her on what she meant by “issues” she clarified that there were “periodic concerns for an emerging health issue,” such as flu outbreaks or potentially rowdy college events. “We had concerns after an event had occurred at the College where there was quite a bit of alcohol consumption, and a number of people ended up at the ER,” she said. “So we talked with College representatives after that to see how a similar incident could be avoided in the future.”

When I sat down with head of Student Health and Counseling John Harshbarger and Student Health Coordinator Marilyn Hamel, they confirmed the occasional meeting between College and hospital representatives. They happen at least once a year, Harshbarger said, and are a time for College administrators—including the Dean of Students—to relay student feedback to the hospital. He said Mercy has “been receptive” to student complaints, but that College representatives rarely have much information to pass on. Hamel echoed Harshbarger’s positive sentiment: “They actually have a very good rating in the hospital grading system, and the students are a part of that.” She was not wrong—according to data compiled by Medicare, Mercy Allen Hospital has four to five stars and is performing at or above the national average in eleven categories of customer satisfaction. So what am I missing? Hamel and Harshbarger have been happy and satisfied with their interactions with Mercy, but discussions with my peers have revealed something else.

Through my conversation with Hamel and Harshbarger, I learned that Mercy has a special relationship with Academic Health Plans (AHP), the Oberlin-provided health insurance. Copays on STI tests and other labs frequently requested by Student Health are covered entirely with no deductible. Student Health refers students to Mercy for blood tests, X-rays, and IV services, but doesn’t keep statistics on how many students are sent to Mercy for inpatient treatment. Hamel hazarded a guess that an ambulance is called for a student at a maximum of once or twice a month. Most of the interactions that students have, it seems, are through the emergency room facilities at the hospital. I’ll return to emergency room trends later, but Sue Bowers summed it up when she frankly told me that “emergency rooms are an expensive place to receive care.”

In April 2017, patient safety watchdog The Leapfrog Group released results of a survey of 112 hospitals in Ohio. Mercy Regional Medical Center of Lorain was the only hospital included that received an “F.” The safety grade was awarded based on five different categories—infections, problems with surgery, practices to prevent errors, safety problems, and care providers—each divided into subcategories. Of the five, Mercy Lorain scored the lowest in the subcategories grouped under “doctors, nurses, and hospital staff,” where it performed below average in every single area. The survey found that there were not enough qualified nurses on the premises, that specially trained doctors were not caring for ICU patients, and that patients consistently perceived that their nurses, doctors, and the rest of the hospital staff were not communicating well or responding quickly enough to them. In the “Practices to Prevent Errors” category, Mercy Lorain performed below average in hand washing—scoring a nine out of 30—and accurately recording patient medications. Four other hospitals run by Mercy Health across Ohio received a “C.”

It is worth noting that Mercy Allen Memorial Hospital is not the same as Mercy Regional Medical Center—the two hospitals together are part of the Mercy system in Lorain county. Leapfrog did not collect data on Mercy Allen because it is a Critical Access Hospital, meaning it is not required to publicly report its safety record. But the two hospitals are closely affiliated, and while scheduling my interview with Sue Bowers, my contact at Mercy Allen referred to Mercy Lorain as the “Lorain headquarters.” Mercy Lorain’s low grade is not only unacceptable, but likely indicative of the quality of care offered at Mercy Allen as well. Furthermore, an article published in the Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law in 2010 by Duke University Press titled “Inefficiency Differences between Critical Access Hospitals and Prospectively Paid Rural Hospitals” shows that CAHs had higher expenses per admission and were generally more cost inefficient. Based on these sources, Mercy Allen is not only providing below-average care, but by virtue of its CAH status, it is providing it at an unnecessarily expensive rate. This is especially concerning in the context of complaints about Mercy Allen’s emergency room—in general, emergency room prices are erratic and unnecessarily high, but there is extra cause for concern in an emergency room connected to a hospital such as Mercy Allen.

A Kaiser Family Foundation and the New York Times 2016 survey of medical bills showed that for people who struggled to pay their medical bills, the biggest portion of those bills were from ER fees. A 2013 PLOS One study showed that prices for the same treatment in different emergency rooms can vary wildly—a UTI, for example, can cost anywhere between $50 and $73,002 at different facilities across the country. This huge range demonstrates the lack of transparency on how much treatments actually cost, making it easy for emergency rooms to overcharge and difficult for patients to know when they are being asked to pay more than they would pay at other ERs. When I first started writing this article, I hoped to uncover something concrete about the wrongs that myself and my peers had experienced at our local hospital. While I still know that those complaints and frustrations are valid, I am beginning to see that Mercy’s track record is a symptom of a larger, very broken system of inadequate, expensive, and inconclusive emergency room care.

But there are things that can be done. A workshop should be offered during orientation to lead freshmen through the ins and outs of emergency room visits. For instance: how a deductible works, how much certain procedures cost, and how to identify when a procedure (like my CT scan) may be unnecessary and costly. A channel should be maintained by Student Health for students to submit comments about their experiences at the hospital. This was something that Harshbarger kept returning to during our conversation. He was shocked when I told him about my own experience, and alluded to some of the anecdotes I had encountered in researching this story. He insisted that Mercy was always open to student feedback, but they rarely had any to pass along. If Student Health has Mercy’s ear like Hamel and Harshbarger suggested, creating a space for students to share stories as a way to affect productive change—or at least get some answers—should be a priority.

As my conversation at Student Health came to an end, Hamel handed me a flyer for the new Mercy Ready Care clinic. The clinic, on West Lorain, is meant for non-emergencies that require quick attention. It’s a way to divert patients away from the costly emergency room to a walk-in care center that’s open later than most doctors’ offices and has weekend hours. I haven’t been to the clinic yet (thankfully I haven’t needed it), but it seems like an important step away from students feeling overcharged and improperly cared for. It also seems like something Oberlin should be shouting from the rooftops about, so students know about this alternative resource that they can take advantage of. The flyer lists “common conditions,” such as allergies, colds and coughs, minor skin infections, sore throats… and urinary tract infections. If a urinary tract infection is a “common condition” that can be treated at a walk-in clinic, why did my doctor insist on an expensive scan to check for kidney stones? This, I suppose, was the root question that started this investigation and the question that I’ve failed to answer. But I have gained some valuable insight into a medical system obfuscated by rumors that, when researched, turned out to be largely founded and symptomatic of a national crisis of emergency room care. My advice? Stick to 􏰀􏰁􏰂the clinic—or the Cleveland Clinic.

Categories
Graphic Arts

Issue Artwork, Fall 2017

by Wilder Voice Artists | Graphic Arts | Fall 2017

The following works appear independent of any print piece in the Fall 2017 issue.


Categories
Poetry

Uber Dream

by Julian Meltzer | Poetry | Fall 2017

Calligraphy by Ramzy Lakos

I have this dream,
mom, where I’m
your Uber driver,
after your legs are
too weak for the subway,
I don’t know you,
of course, but
you are beautiful,
in the way middle-
aged, fashion-conscious
women can be, as
you walk deliberately
from the doorstep of
your apartment I barely
notice the way you
favor your right leg, not
knowing how long it’s taken
you to walk unaided.
I call, Elizabeth?
out the window, you nod,
smiling as you climb
into the backseat.

We make small talk; I’m
surprised—you’re every inch
Upper East Side in your black
woolen shawl and your
Marc Jacobs bag but
friendlier, you thank me
for the Poland Springs
bottle I’ve left in the backseat
but decline my offer of
a mint. We chat all the way
to your acupuncture
appointment and, because
you’ve won me over,
I idle outside, a half-hour maybe.
You don’t seem surprised that I’ve
waited when you return, but smaller
somehow, there’s the limp again, I’m
certain, and an extra wrinkle or
two, have I imagined them? I drive
you to the apothecary, your therapist, a
Reiki practitioner—you shrinking
all the while, aging, your eyes sinking,
your walk to and from
each building becoming
more obviously laborious. You ask
about my family and we share
a smile through the rearview mirror over
my beautiful baby niece, Anita. On the way out
from the Homeopath’s office
you stagger, barely catch yourself,
I rush to take your purse
and your arm, guide you to my car and
tuck you in. Now our chatter dances
around cancer, as I drive you to your
appointment with the famous
Doctor Nicholas and, by silent
agreement, accompany you inside.

When we emerge
I’m livid, as I tuck
you into the back-
seat, I want to beg
you to go to a real
oncologist, that man
is clearly a quack, peddling
false-hope, hippie Chemo
and sure it makes your
hair fall out, all over
the backseat, but with one
look at his tasteful waiting
room, the quiet music, his dead
smile and syrupy drawl, I wanted to
rush you over to Sloan Kettering
or even Bellevue, anywhere
else. But of course I’m just your
Uber driver, so I put on the CD of
Healing Tibetan Chanting the doctor
sold you and we head to
the Aromatherapist’s, the
Chiropractor’s, the Wig-
maker’s, the Kombucha
Shop, the Toxin Masseur,
the NAET Practitioner, the
Cancer Coach, the Hot
Stone Masseur, the Cupping
Masseur, the Foot Masseur,
the Dietitian, the Juice Bar, the
Kimchi Shop, the Spiritual
Healer, the Acupressurist, the
Astrologist, the Yogi—you aging
all the while, shriveling everywhere but
your midsection, which begins
ballooning, and there are no smiles
from either of us and where’s
your Marc Jacobs bag? Where’s
your wig now? Your black shawl is
gone, replaced by something paper-
thin, polka-dotted, split down
the back, and you’re wearing
just fuzzy gray socks
with those sticky, grip-
dots on the bottom
and you’re not sitting
but stretched out,
seatbeltless, across the
backseat like a
shitty cot, so I
drive slowly with
my hazards on until
we pull up to the Hospice
on Eastchester and Bassett
and I have to carry you,
your lightness terrifies me,
as we pass through
the automatic doors
you loll up to me
and whisper,
Where are we?

Categories
Visual Processes

Visual Processes: Ava Field

interviewed by Julia Friend | Visual Processes | Fall 2017

Works by Ava Field

Julia Friend: How has the work you’ve done at the Pottery Co-Op changed over your four years?

Ava Field: When I was a freshman, I was really just learning how to throw. […] Coming here and practicing everyday was so important. I’m the Exco instructor for the beginning class, and that’s one of the things I tell them all the time is that you have to practice. A lot of what I do now is just making functional things like bowls, cups, mugs… but I’m trying to expand and make more sculptural things.

JF: How do you think about functionality as you’re making your pieces?

AF: That’s a big thing in ceramics in general. I think there’s a certain level of craft [to] making a lot of the same functional piece, reproducing the same shape as a set or as something someone can use… But then it’s really interesting when you can alter that and get more of an art form that you just have to look at.

JF: What form are your more sculptural pieces taking?

AF: I don’t really know yet. Here… this is my cactus.

JF: I was admiring it on the shelf.

AF: I was passing a garden, and I saw some cactuses, and I thought they looked really interesting, and I liked their organic shapes so I wanted to try and make one. And there’s also cactuses by the facilities building—I walk past them every time I come here, and I just want to make cactuses! This is my second attempt. My first attempt—well, it’s a sad story. All this stuff over here is raku. So, raku is a special form of pottery firing where you have a strong clay body—meaning the piece you fire can withstand rapid temp changes—so the whole process is that you take your pot that you have glazed and fire it until its gets to temperature, and you transfer it to a bin that won’t melt and will close tightly, and you fill it with combustible things—and it gets really smokey, and when it’s done, everywhere that didn’t have glaze on it turns matte, deep black. The glazes can come out really shiny. The sad thing about these is that one of our co-opers accidentally fired them in the [normal] kiln. So that’s why [this attempt] looks weird.

JF: It’s a process where you don’t know what you’re going to get—there’s some surprise to it.

AF: Yeah.

JF: This [pottery] is very interesting to me as a painter because I put so much time into one [piece]. So what it’s like to make the same form over and over? Does it change over time?

AF: It’s probably one of the harder things—to try to make something the same over and over. I think it’s really fun, and it’s really hard [because] you sit down and you have all these pieces of clay [that you’re trying to make into] the same thing. And at some point you don’t really think about it anymore, and it’s okay if every one is a little different; it’s nice for each one to [be unique]. Because I can’t make everything perfect. […] I just came in with the same idea for all of them; They all have these ridges, and they all have a dimple, but they’re all kind of different heights and widths. Something that is really important that I talk to my students about—because when you’re in a beginning pottery class, I think the main thing you want to be making is something you can use. So, when I talk to them about mugs, I ask them what they really want it to feel like in your hand. Because that literally makes all of the difference. When you make something, and it’s finally done, and you look at it, and you’re like, Oh wow, beautiful, I love it, and then you pick it up, and it doesn’t feel right in your hand… it’s so shitty. Because then you don’t like it!

JF: So it’s very sensory, too.

AF: Yeah, it is. I mean, especially when you’re making mugs because you have the handle. I mean you want to figure out what’s the best way to make this handle—how do I want my hand to fit in this cup?

JF: You’re also interested in photography. Are you able to find ways to intersect that and pottery?

AF: There’s this place called Great Gull island, and it’s an island that the [American] Museum of Natural History [in New York] owns. I’ve worked there for two summers in a row. It’s like an ecological reserve for these birds… It was the craziest experience of my life. On the island there were all these blinds, and for some reason [I] was really interested in them…They have these blinds for watching birds and looking out and hiding so the birds can go about their business without being threatened by you, and I was really interested in that shape [of the blinds.] So the following summer, I was doing raku, and I made these [ceramic versions.]. But there’s also this method I’ve really been meaning to try—cyanotypes, which [uses] this photosensitive chemical that you paint onto paper or fabric and expose it to the sun. The sunlight would basically make a photo of my negative on the cyanotype paper and you wash it away with water and then it comes out blue. You can do that on pottery. It’s something that I really wanna figure out… It’s gonna happen.

􏰉􏰊􏰊􏰉 􏰣􏰒􏰁􏰂􏰍 􏰇􏰁􏰅􏰘 􏰤􏰅􏰖􏰃 􏰒􏰇􏰊􏰊􏰉 􏰌􏰉􏰀􏰀􏰍􏰊􏰎 􏰏

Categories
Visual Processes

Visual Processes: Camille Klein

interviewed by Julia Friend | Visual Processes | Fall 2017

Works by Camille Klein

Julia Friend: So what have you been working on?

Camille Klein: Right now, I’ve been working on painting a lot as a conscious move into that medium. I haven’t done a lot of painting in the past, but these two pieces are definitely me getting into the headspace of using paint, whereas normally, I use a lot of different materials.

JF: [Your past work is] very three-dimensional, so why the move towards two-dimensional?

CK: I don’t know—these two, I like them lying next to the other and viewed as a textile piece—I have ideas that aren’t just flat. This one [car] is actually a sculpture—it has this rounded belly here… So it’s two-sided, and I want it to stand as a show piece on the ground rather than a wall so it can be [seen in] 360 [degrees]. So this is really more of a sculpture. It’s filled with salt, actually. I don’t know how to predict this, but it’s starting to oxidize.

JF: How did you come up with that?

CK: Well, I made the canvas first, and it was honestly just because I had too much canvas… so it doubled over [and I thought] well, I’ll just make a bag. And then I was interested in experimenting with the bag thing, and I didn’t know whether to fill it first, and then have the paint be in conversation with the texture, or add texture to this more established narrative going on. Which is what I preferred. So as I was painting it, I liked the idea of salt. It has campy connotations, like salting—like salting the road. But also salt is a preservative, which I was interested in when thinking about trying to preserve that object.

JF: So it has a lot of valences to it. How does that fit into your other painting or what else you’re working on?

CK: The approach is the same in its surface quality and cartoony aspects. That I do more in sketchbooks—I haven’t actually painted with such recognizable symbols [before]. They’re connected because I’m doing this exploration through shapes—that’s kind of the way my practice works: starting from one shape, and building that outward, and once I have this one idea, so many more come. […] But all these things realize ideas of protection, and weaponry, and this idea of time which I’ve been thinking about a lot more lately.

JF: You’ve made comments about [producing work that is more engaged with material than personal identity.] What does this mean for you when you’re creating?

CK: That’s something that’s been shifting back and forth. But definitely when I first started making art in high school, I [created] from a very personal place, and it was sort of like a diary process—where I was exploring, but it always had to come back to me and trying to represent an experience of mine. Then that became really hard, and I also thought that it [was] pretty stupid. I started thinking more about material—and like, everyone is interested in material so that’s not a new thing. But it just kind of freed me to think about what was happening in this blank territory where I’m just using my own body and the things I have at hand to build a narrative separate from myself. That helped a lot, and then when I have been interested in using more personal meanings or symbols, I’m weaving that into a general approach.

JF: So these are very narrative pieces, too?

CK: Yeah. I think they’re kind of soupy though. […] It sucks because I have a clipboard, and I’m like, hiding it and watching people try to figure it out, and I don’t want to do that. But I also do like having a secret, and it’s interesting for me to have the audience make their own interpretation. But I am interested in merging those two more. I think that one of my issues right now is trying to be less esoteric. There’s a value in creating all these [unsolved meanings] but then you get buried too deep. […] It’s a process of keeping my clipboard, but opening it a little bit. And that’s in form, too—I’m trying to create more open forms, and have more trailing ideas.

JF: Trailing ideas?

CK: Yeah—maybe not having a solution, not necessarily striving for a finished body of work. But I do think of these things as from collections; they definitely are made with the other one in mind. A year ago, I started a lot with notions of protection and the body as an agent of the world, and how to arm yourself against whatever [is] external. So that’s when I got into weapon imagery, and I also got into the literal idea of covering, covering materials in other materials, and I made a sleeping bag and other tents—forms of protection. Then that moved into spaces with protection, and last semester i talked about enclosed space a lot—not necessarily in-body space, but physical space. And then, that was really proven with a cross symbol, definitely as an origin of foundation; it became what everything was built upon. And then the cross symbol mutates into this axis on a circle, and then I got into spirals this summer, and so that shape took a spiral shape. Now I’m interested in time, and armor and… it all comes together.

JF: Sounds very fluid.

CK: Yeah. It’s definitely fluid, but it’s also aggravating that […] I can’t capture these feelings necessarily [because] they’re relying on the abstract.

JF: [With all of these different elements], do you have a sense of how they’re pieced together?

CK: That’s the most intuitive part for me I’d say. That’s like… the best part.

Categories
Fiction

Critter and the Dragonfly

by Christopher Kennedy | Fiction | Fall 2017

Drawings by Martina Hildreth

Saga of song, witches, and sweet potato.


That thick fat summer sweet smell of the ball field, tan clouds rising up off the dirt like smoky hippos. The thwack and smack and back-to-back delicious screams as the pea soars into the raw freely-bleeding palm of a leaping boy. The crows screaming “Yah!” and the spit. The mean, sweat-drippin’ snakey eyes of the pitcher from the hill before he throws you a yakker, then the symphonic crack like a broken bone as you hit that wilson right on the screws. No Lord, there is nothing like it.

I’m Catfish. I’m the best goddamn batter in the goddamn Ash Lands. I’m the second oldest and the third tallest of all of us. They call me Catfish because once down by Dog River after a pale shadow caught my eye I plunged my left paw into the spicy black chemical water and yanked out a dead catfish, the king of catfish—my hand searing and crimson from the evil river. Stomach tight and numb from weeks of protein squares and canned corn, I bit its head right off and spit out the spongy bones. I gave everyone else a bite, too. Most delicious meal we’d had in months, even though our bellies and chests stung for hours afterward from the chemicals in the fish and we couldn’t play baseball that day on account of our thunderous headaches. But it was worth it. Before that I was just Lefty.

Critter was crouching behind my legs—he’s permanent catcher. He’s a shaggy little kid from Tennessee who doesn’t talk much—just murmurs and growls like a pup most the time. He’s the only one who’ll ever play catcher.

Over on second, I can see Smokey Pete. He’s bald as a fruit bat. “Heybattabatta, heybattabattaaa… ” He’s already starting.

Way behind him, I spot Gizmo, our goggled outfielder, who we’ve always gotta holler at during games because she’s fiddling with radio parts and floppy disks and old eye-phones instead of catching fly balls. Jelly’s also outfielder, poised probably too close to Gizmo. We call him Jelly because he wears a dirty old jellyfish hat he got from who- knows-where. Windmill Wendy can read and told us the label says “Sea World.” When you try to take off his jellyfish hat, he screams.

So anyhow I’ve named Critter, Gizmo, and Jelly. Then there’s Goliath, Baby, Windmill, Cyclone, Wild Joe, Dynamite, Worm-o, and Drone. (None of us even remembers why we call him Drone, but every time a drone flies over up in the clouds we whistle at him and he does The Monkey.) I won’t say much more about any of them now except that Worm-o is my brother.

Then of course there’s the King. The King calls the shots. Her eyes are angry and black like a Great White Shark’s, and she’s got a long scar running down her chin and throat. Says a specter did it to her when she was a kid—tells the story sometimes and we all listen to it with wide white eyes and are silent for once. We ain’t afraid of specters or nothing but the ways she tells it you gotta shut up and listen. Once Jelly hollered out “BullSHIT!” while she was telling us about killing the witch with a stick. The King went quiet, jaw twitching, then clocked Jelly on the mouth, knocking him down. She leaped on top of him and clamped her hand hard on Jelly’s tiny Adam’s apple and whispered in his ear for a while things we couldn’t hear. You don’t cross the King. She hammers on her chest and when she does that we hammer our chests too. When you look in her eyes she threatens to eat you. You don’t cross the King. She’s taller and older than all of us, with ropy muscles and long chin hairs. Don’t. Cross. The King.

We stick together. We stay up late in the hot nights, racing around the scorched ground of the Ash Lands, galloping around in the warm, dead breeze, and then stand at Heaven Cliff and howl up at the big yellow moon. We hurl ancient bottles and plastic pieces into the Void. We howl and whistle and moan, together with all the starved hounds in Ohio.

We fight off night-ghasts when our games go past dusk and the foul stringy things come loping around our field with their veils and long fingers. We share protein squares and gamble with spider parts and sometimes even find squirrels to cook. We fight and knock each other down and bite and scratch; we sing, we talk dirt, we spit, we mash tongues. I’m telling you it for hell sure gets real hard in the unholy breathless industrial landscape of the Ash Lands, this godforsaken depopulated city ridden with witches and parasites and vultures and ghasts. There’s even a Cyclops that lives in the I-K-E-A. We poke around warehouses sometimes looking for food cans and wilsons and such and one time Windmill Wendy went to I-K-E-A wanting some wood and saw it through the shelves by the toilets. She said it was eleven foot tall at least, head was all wrapped up in soggy bandages but she caught a bit of its bleary red eye glaring through. You can bet she ran faster than a jet plane away from that thing.

But anyhow, we got baseball. Jesus God we got baseball. And when we’re playing rough and wild under the angel-pink pollution sky, wilsons snapped and cracked and caught searing hot in our calloused hands, kids whooping and screaming and hurling their bodies in a gleeful dance, we’re made electric by the Cuyahoga Holy Ghost, the sore and lovely spirit of the crying Today, the heat, the hunger. The Floods. The craziness everywhere in the streets and skies and shadows, the craziness in our bones. When we play baseball, mighty and burnt on the cracked-dry diamond, we’re gods, baby. Even though we’re skinny, even though we’re kids, even though Smokey Pete has worms.

The King just sent me two mean curve balls. One strike CRUD. Two strikes DOUBLE CRUD. Third pitch, I smack that wilson right where it hurts and it goes hollering for its mama as it zooms toward outer space—it goes past Jupiter, Saturn, Mars, the Sun! That was what’s called a homer, good folks. A tape measure blast. I go jogging to first base backwards, a wide smile on my face.

“That’s a tater!” murmurs Baby.

“A real moon shot!” says Windmill. She leans back and whistles long and slow.

Finally I arrive still trotting backwards onto home plate and do a little dance, singing “Yippee who-oo! Yippee yoo!”


It’s not easy to remove the poison from things
we found them their leg was broken shivering
in the humid dusk The air around them stung
and all around them we could see their spirit
stinging sprawled out on the forest floor we
carried them to camp and our medics set their
leg the poor kid shook and growled and yelled
their leg bound we washed them with rosewater
and rosemary amaranth and thyme We burned
rosemary as well prayed and Dan played her guitar
We massaged the kid’s arms and neck and gave
them teas and stew their eyes were salmon colored
one time they woke up and said are you witches


So here’s what’s going on: Nobody’s seen Critter in three days.

We’ve never gone so long without seeing one of the boys. And so we’ve been without a catcher. Wild Joe’s been substitute, but he never catches the wilsons, just lays on his side and eats dirt most of the time. After our game at noon we went over to sit down in the Taco Pete parking lot and mull things over.

“Maybe it’s the witches that got him,” said Baby.

We shuddered, all having heard some pretty awful stories about the witches and what they do—capturing kids and melting them, turning them to trees, takin’ out their eyes, even turning the suckers to witches themselves. Maybe they were all just tales but that’s what we’ve heard.

“What if he’s lying in a ditch somewhere? What if he’s dead and he’s got mice in his arms and crickets laying eggs in his noggin?” Drone piped up. “What if—”

“Quiet, Drone!”

“Shut up, Drone.”

Wild Joe was praying. Worm-o, my kid brother, was real still, looking at his hands. He was scared and pale. I decided to speak up.

“Y’all quit talking like that. Critter’s fine. Probably just constipated and hiding by the river ‘til he feels better,” I said.

“You’re constipated, Catfish!” called Cyclone. I leaned over and yanked on his hair. He cried out then shut up.

“Critter’s fine,” I said.

“No, he’s not,” the King murmured, and we all looked at her. “The Government took him, and now they’re using him in experiments.” She looked stern and serious, laying on her back with her hands under her head, cobalt blue sunglasses. I wanted to tell her it was a lie, mostly for Worm-o’s sake, but the King would clock me.

Then a drone flew overhead. We whistled, and Drone hopped up and down like a flea, waving his hands around and kicking. He did The Monkey. We hollered and snapped, and when he landed, he turned his eyelids inside out with his fingers.


Today we gave them sweet potato they turned
it around in their mouth and said are you witches
or is this heaven We laughed and said what’s your
name they said CRITTER and my legs hurts we gave
them root to chew on How did you hurt your leg I
was climbing a tree We said you were trying to catch
a dragonfly they looked scared were you watching
me No but we can see the past sometimes they said
you’re witches all right get me out of here KING
CATFISH WINDMILL HELP we said are those your
friends they said they’ll come rescue me we said we’ll
let you go as soon as we can but your leg is healing and
you would not be able to run from the night ghasts


We went into town and knocked on Jaden and Louisa’s door to ask them about Critter because sometimes he sleeps on their living room floor. They have a big store with shelves and shelves of cans and water and firewood and hooch. Always have guns strapped about them but love us kids—one time even slipped us a packet of jerky I’m telling you that was the closest we ever came to having Christmas.

Louisa answered the door, “How can we help you, little roaches?”

Louisa always wore these blue dangly earrings and has a gold tooth. Today she had a cut her eye—we asked her about it, but she shook her head. Jaden came down too.

“We can’t find Critter. Have you seen him?”

“He hasn’t been by here for a while. Did you look by the creek?”

Yes.

“Did you check the Mall?”

Yes.

“Is he at his mom’s?”

No way.

“Have you asked Rod?”

We went over on Rugby Street to Rodney’s shop. Rodney does haircuts and exorcisms in his shop, styling and snipping during the day and in the after hours casting out demons and elves from people’s souls. A lot of them are on powder or glue. Sometimes we hang around outside his place to listen to the screams as he purifies. He’s a public figure and gets around, so we figured he might have heard some news about Critter.

We swung open the screen door of his shop and filed in. Rodney was cutting his nails in a wheely chair, his feet on the counter. The King got straight to the point.

“Rodney! You seen Critter?”

Rodney eyed us for a moment.

“That boy with the scab nose hardly ever says a word? Dog boy?”

We nodded.

“Nah I haven’t seen him. Not in a while. He could use a haircut. Doesn’t look like he’s ever gotten one. You bring him in when you find him. I’m handing out coupons. Twenty-five percent off on shaves. Can’t beat that deal.” He held out the coupons.

Baby took one.

“You keep an eye out, Rod. We need our catcher.”

Rodney looked at each of us in turn and ran his hands over his hair. He leaned back in his chair then continued cutting his nails.

“Try the Bird,” he said.

The Bird Man always seems to be popping up everywhere, to be everywhere at once. He’s a wild old man all dressed up like a huge black bird with dark rags, feathers, trash bags, and oil drawn out in spooky designs on his skin. He doesn’t speak human words unless you give him potato bread. Thankfully, Baby still had a sack from the last distribution.

Anyhow we found old Bird Man way far up in a tree. He was rubbing his feet and was rather still, looking off. His knitting hung from the branches around him like Spanish moss, long scrolls of twine and straw.

Baby tossed up the sack of potato bread and yelled, “Cover up your ding-a-ling, pervo-birdo! We wanna talk!”

The sack went up, up, and fell back down. The Bird did not move to grab it. Just moved his head a little toward us then back at the sky. He looked like a gargoyle, half erasered, a smudge in the nest of tree capillaries.

“What’s eatin’ ya Bird Man?”

“Bird Man have you seen Critter?”

“Did the angels get him Bird Man?”

“Bird Man, speak!”

He seemed sorrowful today. We looked at each other.

“Anyway just tell us if you see him.”


5:40 PM Dear diary the witches gave you to me said
you’re a tape recorder and showed me how to speak
into you and tell my story so here’s my story I was
climbing a tree and saw a green wasp and then
my leg hurt my head hurt and I was saved by the
witches they let me listen to their CD player and I
heard the song johnny b goode the witches are not
like we thought they shine they sing they paint
themselves decorate their tents with drawings
and herbs One of them has a gun and another has
no legs so they carry him I don’t know how many
there are my favorite one is Isabela she says she is
from Down South too and calls me holy one


We slept all together tonight. Have not played ball for days, just been looking for our compatriot. Usually we spread out into our favorite nooks and crannies all over the Ash Lands, two of us maybe under the overpass, three or four up in the trees by the river maybe, one or two in somebody’s apartment here or there. But tonight we were all huddled together in the old Dairy Queen on Main, cheered up just a little, giggling and spooning on the grimy floor as the moonlight streamed in and the moths high-fived the windows. Gizmo brought an old battery lamp and put it in the center of us all, and we cheered up even more—sprinkling dirt in the ears of the little ones when they fell asleep, Jelly and Joe kept yanking up each other’s shirts and purple nurpling one another to kingdom come. The King was off to the side in her old hammock she’d tied up between the beams, smoking her clumsy cigarillos. Smokey Pete told the story about the time he kissed tongues with his cousin Angela. We hooted and yapped.

When Gizmo flipped off the light, though, we were all thinking about Critter. And about witches, and angels, creek goblins, ghasts, dogs, tuna people, mosquito clouds, and cannibals. Just to name a few of the night mares trotting around behind our eyes. We had barred the doors shut and hung garlic from the windows outside, but every once and awhile you’d still hear a night-ghast thumping up against a window in the darkness.

After an hour or so, Windmill and I caught one another’s eyes and knew neither of us could sleep. We crept out and headed for Heaven Cliff, not saying much. We raced to the old familiar spot and leaned against the Void and groaned, exhausted by all the being-afraid. We gazed up at the thick dark sky and I thought about how Louisa said once there used to be many more stars you could see. Tonight I counted seven. Then we screamed. Damn hell, we screamed until our throats burned and the tears flowed free down our cheeks like fresh hot blood from a wound. Where once we had howled and sung and beat our chests, we now screeched and wept like blind baby animals, scared for Critter. We leaned on each other as the darkness stared at us, unblinking and dense. Poison pulsed in the earth, and our stomachs seized up, and our hearts rang like hand bells, looking into the giant stunned face of the world.

“Damn you, Critter!” Windmill yelled. “Damn you!”


Today we told Critter some about who we are we
said Critter we are a people trying to become whole
we are Insects doing quiet repair Critter we’re
learning to pray to the day and ask for things from
the ground and battle together The world has not been
killed yet we are growing and may even save ourselves
We see bits of the future going by like comets but are
not very good yet at reading it we told Critter about the
god Sun the god Now the god Ground we stay hidden here
because you people kill witches you kill angels that is
why we stay here with our gardens and fire and lipstick
our crosses our dances love and rage If you want you can stay
with us here there’s plenty of sweet potato and planning to do


Days had passed and we figured Critter was dead. We had a funeral for him and buried a dog leg we found in the gutter. Nobody said much—we just buried the dog leg and the King socked anyone who cried too much. We placed a glittery rock over Critter’s grave, and Windmill Wendy wrote “Critter” in the dirt. That was the end of it.

Today’s the first time we’ve played in what feels like a long long while now. The Sun is up in the sky frowning like a huge mean baby dumping down white light and heat. We’re playing slow motion and dumb, throats dry and noggins aching—there hasn’t been much water. A drone flies over us way high up in the sky. We stop to watch.

Everyone’s been striking out more often than not, but finally Cyclone hits one and the wilson shoots off like a furious bird. We watch, panting, from the ground as it streams away from the world.

“Look!”

I turn, tired and stupid, to where Gizmo is pointing. There, shimmering through the heat, is Critter.

“Holy moly…”

There are antlers twisting out from Critter’s shaggy head. His skin seems to shine and sparkle, and he’s wearing clothes I’ve never seen before. Critter walks toward us, then breaks into a run, smiling and weeping, stirring up clouds of dirt. The wilson lands somewhere behind him and we barely notice it.

He stops, bends back, and unleashes a howl. Slowly, we begin to whoop and race toward him, surround him, hug and grab him, sweep him up, clobber him, shake him.

Jesus, Critter!

Where’d you get those antlers?

We thought you were dead, Critter!

We had a funeral for you!

Well, spit it out, Critter! Where you been?

Categories
The Bawdy Politic

A Manifesto on Rigor and Play

by Judy Jackson | The Bawdy Politic | Fall 2017

Drawing by Martina Hildreth

Any artist today has heard the claim: There are no rules in art anymore. In 1913, Marcel Duchamp premiered Bicycle Wheel, now known as his first “readymade” sculpture. The readymades were existing objects (often commonplace items, like bicycle wheels and urinals) that the artist signed, thereby making them “art.” The American composer John Cage followed in a similar vein with his piece 4’33” (1952), a solo piano piece where the pianist plays not a single note. Instead, the audience hears the sounds of the concert hall: people coughing, the creaks of the heating vents, nervous shuffling in the audience. These two events mark the artistic revolution that occurred in the twentieth century. If a completely “silent” piece (an appraisal that Cage refuted, as there was sound involved) is music, then anything can be music. If a signed urinal can be art, then anything can be art. Needless to say, Duchamp and Cage were not the only artists engaging in this type of practice: there were also the White Paintings of Rauschenberg, the text pieces of Yoko Ono and Pauline Oliveros, and the “noise” symphonies of Luigi Russolo, among others. However, these pieces often act as flash points when discussing the upending of the artistic establishment in the twentieth century. This shift abolished the relevance of any established “rules” in music and art—one need not be concerned with eighteenth-century counterpoint or figure drawing if they do not feel so obliged. However, this deconstruction has left us with a climate of uncertainty and passiveness: If anything can be art, how do we judge the quality of our work and the work of others?

One response to this problem has been to treat the arts, specifically music, as a type of science. The New Complexity movement in acoustic composition and the Acousmatic genre of electronic music both advocate for a sort of musical objectivity. In these genres, composers may manipulate series of notes representing the atomic density of various gasses, produce pieces structured by mathematical functions, and trigger sounds at the tempo of a certain country’s birth rate. Every musical decision must be supported by something factual and leave little room for any type of subjective critique: It doesn’t matter that the piece doesn’t sound interesting—here are all of my mathematical calculations that back up its validity, the composer would respond. In electronic music, the technology used to produce the musical object often supersedes the object itself. In fact, the piece tends to act almost solely as a “proof of concept,” or a demonstration of the capabilities of the technology; think of a trade show, where the salesperson shows you all the sounds you can make by pressing different buttons on a device. One can quickly see that this type of rigor does nothing to further the creation of quality work. Art is not a science: One cannot force objectivity onto something inherently subjective. Rather, art should be treated as its own distinct field with a unique system of rigor reflecting this subjective nature.

Another response to the problem of rigor in art is to act as if it is impossible to produce poor quality work. If everything is art, then there can be no bad art. This, again, is a weak solution. Under these constraints, artists find themselves becoming lazy and apathetic: If there is no way to do art badly, why put in the effort to make it good?

None of this is to say that the events of the twentieth century have doomed contemporary artists to obsolescence. Rather, they have freed us from various rules based in systemic oppression. Most “classical music” rules are based on the practices of white, European men, and are often used to invalidate the works of composers not fitting these specifications. Ridding the music world of these constraints benefits marginalized artists and forces diversification in the art world. Now, without institutional rules dictating what constitutes “good art,” we can create systems of quality that reflect us, our positionalities, and our metrics of quality.

What would a new system of rigor look like? It certainly must rely on self-determined metrics of quality—our art should reflect what we believe quality art to be—rather than universally defined ones. Here, Cage can provide us with a basic framework on which to build. He defines music as consisting of four components: structuremethodmaterial, and form. These components are defined as follows:

Structure: the division of music into parts, from phrases to long sections

Method: the movement from note to note

Material: sound or silence

Form: the continuity from start to finish

Cage’s definitions reside in the music sphere, but they can be abstracted easily and applied to other art forms. In writing, structure can be viewed as the division of text into sentences and paragraphs, method as the syntax of the sentence, material as the words and punctuation, and form as the narrative arc. Likewise, in visual art, structure can be the groupings of figures; method, the connection between these; material, pigment or negative space; and form, the overall layout of the piece.

Cage places these components on a spectrum between mind (head) and heart, and it is this spectrum that provides the foundation for a newly defined rigorous art.

Any creation of art consists of a series of decisions: What note should be played by which instrument and when? How loud should it be? Where should the artist place a line on a canvas? How long and bold should it be, and what color? Which words should a sentence contain? Which synonym should be used to best communicate the author’s intent? Each of these decisions tend to originate from either an analytical (head-based) place, or an intuitive (heart-based) one. Art requires both technical proficiency of some sort (can you program the computer to make the sound you want?) and creative proficiency (do you like how your music sounds?). Thus, each compositional decision must satisfy both these requirements—if a decision stems from the head, does it please the heart? If the decision is intuitive, does it make sense within the analytic structure of the piece? This is our system of rigor: Each decision must be considered and judged as to its quality from both an analytic and intuitive perspective.

While such a system of rigor may prove more viable than the existing ones, its execution can be exhausting. Constantly checking and double-checking your work can lead to a place of artistic paralysis: What if one small decision isn’t good enough? This is where play enters the process. Art is an inherently human act, a fact that the artist cannot forget. Cage captures this sentiment when he defines the purpose of music: “Music is edifying, for from time to time it sets the soul in operation. The soul is the gatherer-together of the disparate elements (Meister Eckhart), and its work fills one with peace and love” (Cage, Forerunners of Modern Music).

This concept is exemplified best by the works of Yoko Ono. Her text pieces, such as the one found in Grapefruit (below), prompt performers to reorient their mindsets and play with the material presented by their surroundings.

Yoko Ono, Grapefruit

It is critical to play with your material, to fuss with it and tease out delightful deviations and mutations. Remembering this aspect isn’t only for the artist’s health; joy has a strange way of manifesting in your work, and its absence is perceptible.

However, the mind cannot simultaneously exist in a state of rigor and a state of play. It is hard to both edit and write at the same time. As artists in an academic environment, we often feel pressure to perform our practices in line with institutional and class requirements. Yet in order to produce effective work, we must remember to keep our own definitions of quality in mind and resist the urge to academicize our output instead of playing with our material. We must exist in a constant state of flux, oscillating between reckless experimentation and elegant, level-headed analysis. It is only then that we can capture those intangible subconscious whispers and force them into exquisite earthly manifestations.