Categories
The Bawdy Politic

Me, The Mall, And I

by Fiona Warnick | The Bawdy Politic | Fall 2020

The joys and shame of loving the mall.


Rosalinabeth and I were at Victoria’s Secret, checking out. When it was my turn to approach the register, I held my breath. I had brought my own bag, and did not need the violently pink striped one they would try to foist upon me—but when was the right time to voice this? Too early was awkward, but so was too late. I had to say it before the cashier had already reached for the bag, or I would lose my nerve entirely. It would become too easy to surrender to the process—the pink tissue paper, the store-specific credit card. 

I managed to refuse the bag, and stuffed my new bra into the already-full canvas tote I’d brought from home.  

Rosalinabeth had three bags: her purse, the yellow one from Forever 21, and this latest one from Victoria’s Secret. (Rosalinabeth is not her real name; it’s what she always chose when we were six and playing fairy princesses.) “I love having multiple shopping bags,” she said suddenly, swinging them along beside her. 

I knew exactly what she meant: it was like being on a movie poster. A woman shopping, on TV, always has too many shopping bags. (See: Cher in Clueless, Vivian Ward in Pretty Woman, Blair and Serena in Gossip Girl.) She is always on a spree, never a purposeful trip to buy the pants she needs for her chorus concert. 

As much as I loved these shows, the Woman Shopping was not a character I wanted to emulate. To care about shoes, in the movies, meant not caring about important things like grades and morals, and also not being taken seriously by the surrounding male characters. So I tried not to enjoy shopping. 

Sometimes, though, I would catch sight of myself in a store window: skinny jeans, new boots, purposeful stride. And that reflection—too brief and shadowy to show any flaws—made me happy, no matter how many times I had been told beauty didn’t matter. 

“Let’s go to Starbucks,” I said to Rosalinabeth. Damn the sea turtles, I wanted to drink something through a plastic straw. 

***

The mall has always made me feel this way: full of joy, and ashamed of it. Growing up, I felt that feminism had done a lot for the girls of my generation (or, at least, the upper-middle-class white girls of my generation). No one had a problem with us being good at math or baseball. My classmates and teachers took my opinions seriously. Yet I was afraid. I felt that if anyone should discover the joy a lacy bra inspired in me, or the hours I could spend in front of a dressing-room mirror, everything would fall apart. 

I didn’t have any clear evidence to support this fear. The threat of being exposed as a Girl Who Likes Shopping was amorphous, collected from the edges of everyday life. I extrapolated from, for instance, the way my father described my third grade teacher: “She’s great, the kids love her, but she always wears this bright blue eyeshadow.” He said it as if the makeup were a point against her. I hadn’t noticed that my teacher wore eye shadow until then. It was just part of her face.

When I went to Rosalinabeth’s house in early elementary school, we would sometimes paint our nails. She had so many colors, and also the sparkly stuff you could layer on top of other colors to feel extra fancy. 

But I had another friend—we’ll call her Jo. Jo never wore dresses and never wore shoes and never brushed her hair. She climbed trees and hunted frogs and was generally the coolest person I had ever met. If I was going to her house, I made sure to take off my nail polish first. 

Cool girls did not like girly things. Nail polish was not compatible with the Powerful Female Character archetype. 

I knew our society’s beauty standards are unrealistic, manufactured by corporations to keep women oppressed and spending money. My inner desire to be thin and blond—to fit that image of the woman laden with shopping bags—became a symptom of poor moral fortitude. The advertisers had gotten to me.

In my seventh-grade French class, we learned the verb ‘aimer’: to like. The teacher gave us a list of activities, and we had to write sentences explaining if we liked them or not.

I wrote: “J’aime lire. J’aime nager. J’aime faire du vélo.” I like reading. I like shopping. I like bicycling. 

I wrote: “Je n’aime pas aller au centre commercial.” I do not like going to the mall.

***

Shopping didn’t always exist as a recreational activity. For most of European history, only the aristocracy had more than one or two sets of clothing. Everything had to be done by hand, so a new dress was both extremely time consuming and extremely expensive. In this era, cities were masculine spaces, meant for politics and business. Respectable women stayed at home. The only women on the streets were prostitutes, objects for male consumption. 

Then came the industrial revolution. The middle class expanded, goods were produced at lower costs, and shopping became a viable activity for a much larger portion of the population. Suddenly, women had a reason to roam the city.

In London, they installed raised sidewalks and street- lamps. The sidewalks were meant to keep women’s shoes and long skirts out of the mud, and the streetlamps allowed them to keep shopping even as the sun set. The goal was to keep women in the stores as long as possible, so they would spend the maximum amount of money. It was manipulative capitalism, yet it was also the first instance of women’s needs and desires having an impact on the architecture of the city. 

Department stores went even further, offering safety, tearooms, and public lavatories to the female shopper. Advertisers had to address women specifically, and though their tactics were certainly rooted in deeply sexist assumptions, it was still one of the first times that men had to think deeply about what women might want. 

This, perhaps, is what I did not understand growing up: a woman shopping is a woman with purchasing power, and a woman with any sort of power is basically an existential threat to the patriarchy—ergo, why society must ridicule her. 

We proclaimed things “cute” and “revolting‌,” not because we really cared, but because it was fun to loudly pass judgement on the world around us.

The advent of shopping-as-recreation meant that women could make decisions about fashion and decor, but only if everyone understood that these decisions were not important. And if a woman came to care deeply about these choices—the only ones she was allowed to make for herself—she could easily be laughed off as frivolous. 

The mall did for Rosalinabeth and me what the department store did for 19th-century women. It was the first place our parents said, “Here is some money, be free, meet us back at Macy’s at two o’clock.” The posters in the store windows may have given us unrealistic beauty standards, but they were aimed at us—teenage girls—specifically. 

We went to the mall to find out what we liked. To say, “Oh my God that bikini is so ugly,” which really meant, “I am becoming a person who is confident in their own tastes and opinions.” We proclaimed things “cute” and “revolting,” not because we really cared, but because it was fun to loudly pass judgement on the world around us. At the mall, we could be the experts. 

This isn’t to say our shopping trips were particularly existential. We rode the escalators and ate soft pretzels and talked about life. It was just something we enjoyed, like ice cream, or dancing, or going to the beach. It only felt different because I was ashamed of it. 

This isn’t to say our shopping trips were particularly existential. We rode the escalators and ate soft pretzels and talked about life. It was just something we enjoyed, like ice cream, or dancing, or going to the beach. It only felt different because I was ashamed of it. 

***

Malls are dying. Online shopping is pushing them ever closer to obsolescence. Throughout high school, Rosalinabeth and I watched the stores trickle out. We said goodbye to the Aeropostale; we said goodbye to the Wet Seal; we watched the Forever 21 move from a nine-room maze with two escalators and its own entrance to a small retail space next to Target.

Recently, I heard a journalist on TV say the pandemic is accelerating the demise of the American shopping mall, and I can’t say I’m mad about it. We could do with fewer sprawling parking lots, fewer plastic bags, and fewer stick-thin mannequins. 

A shopping mall, to me, feels morally similar to a zoo. The animals are given food, safety, and expert veterinary care. They are celebrated—but they are also caged. And at the end of the day, the people who erected those cages are trying to make money.

***

Right now, I am stuck at home. I have not been to a mall in over a year. My pants are all too big for me (I’ve lost weight in quarantine—part of me is happy about this, part of me is ashamed of that happiness, rooted as it is in unrealistic beauty standards) but I haven’t bought new ones because fitting rooms are closed. 

Everyone is talking about the first thing they’ll do when this is all over. They’ll hug their grandparents. They’ll go to the movies. They’ll get absurdly drunk with all their friends. 

I might go to the mall, if it is still around. I will buy a strangely fruity iced tea from Starbucks, and be frustrated when the cardboard straw gets too soggy to help scoop up the ice cubes from the bottom. I will try on some pants. I will ride anescalator. I will feel, somehow, like myself.  

Categories
Summer Reading

Quarantine Companions

by Sam Schuman | Summer Reading | Web Exclusive

In isolation, pets, like books, can be a saving grace—just ask Virginia Woolf.


Coronavirus hasn’t been easy on anybody, although its effects are, of course, asymmetrically felt. But Max doesn’t seem to be bothered by the pandemic one bit. If anything, he’s got it better now than ever: the whole family (stuck) at home, occasionally desperate for a break from one another and always willing to confide in him, the only member of the household who will never judge or give an undesirable reply. This is because Max can’t speak—he’s our nine-year-old silver tiger tabby cat. Since my brother and I left home for college, he’s also become my parents’ de facto third child. 

In addition to his obvious verbal limitation, Max, with his namesake silver fur, inquisitive seafoam eyes, and ears like triangular radar dishes, has a physical one, too: he’s only got three legs, the result of an accident when he was just months old, before we adopted him. (I’ve tried, unsuccessfully, to make “we got hungry” the go-to family retort when visitors ask about him.) He’s not bothered by his missing hind leg, as far as I can tell. To the contrary, he enjoys every creature comfort of the suburban housecat life: hopping onto beds, chairs, couches, tables, and laptops to nap as desired, mewling incessantly should he find something disagreeable with his Fancy Feast dinner, stalking small game in our yard.

My relationship with Max hasn’t changed at all since the pandemic. It’s the same routine, day in and day out, of daring escapes from our front door and bait-and-switch playfulness that ends, more often than not, with claws out and skin broken. While I watch the news with my parents, Max studiously cleans himself next to us, totally unaware of rising Covid death tolls, horrifying police violence, and increasingly common climate disasters. He’s something of an anchor in the house, a living thing who demands care and attention, and provides some of his own in return, without any concern for the mounting human exigencies that 2020 seems hell-bent on delivering.

***

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was a prolific Victorian poet who rivaled Tennyson for the title of U.K. Poet Laureate after Wordsworth’s death—far from a trivial figure in English letters. But, I should admit here, I had never heard of her until last month, when, finally having some downtime, I read Virginia Woolf’s Flush: A Biography. Billed by my slim, black Penguin Classics edition as a “playful, witty biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s pet spaniel,” the 100-pages-and-change novella is a fascinating cross-genre work. Woolf constructs an imaginative piece of nominal nonfiction narrated by Barrett Browning’s eponymous dog, Flush, out of the scant documentary evidence of his life found in the 19th-century writer’s corpus. Her poems and letters serve as literary clues, points of creative departure like, “A head as hairy as Faunus, thrust its way / Right sudden against my face,—two golden-clear / Great eyes astonished mine,—a dropping ear / Did flap me on either cheek to dry the spray!” Flush was Woolf’s best-selling book to date when it was published in 1933, but it’s among her most neglected today.

I was initially more interested in Woolf’s presentation of the dog than in her treatment of its owner. The back cover seemed to encourage such a focus, proclaiming that the text “asks what it is to be a dog, and a human.” My myopic entry point led me far astray of most critical interpretations of Flush, which take the work as a feminist allegory, a modernist critique of London, or an exploration of class conflict. Instead, what gripped me, reading Flush in this moment, were the descriptions of the spaniel’s life with Ms. Barrett, a sickly woman who spends her days almost entirely confined to a posh room in her family home on London’s Wimpole Street, simulating a (highly privileged) sort of quarantine. While Ms. Barrett spends her days recumbent or hunched over writing, Flush sleeps at her feet. It’s a study in forced, if not reluctant, intimacy. 

***

Flush is a priceless gift to Ms. Barrett from her poor, maternalistic friend and fellow writer, Mary Russell Mitford. Raised in a working-class cottage since birth, young Flush is accustomed to romping Pan-like through wild English fields, not to Ms. Barrett’s dimly lit, aristocratic chamber, with its large looking glass, multiple marble busts, and elaborate furniture. His initial response to the room, Woolf postulates, is that of “a scholar who has descended step by step into a mausoleum and there finds himself in a crypt, crusted with fungus, slimy with mould, exuding sour smells of decay and antiquity.” But Flush is not a scholar; he is a spaniel, and a well-bred and sensitive one at that. He quickly develops a curious relationship with Ms. Barrett. Within moments of their meeting, Woolf tells us, “There was a likeness between them. As they gazed at each other each felt: Here am I—and then each felt: But how different!”

Trapped in her room, where she compares herself to a caged bird, Ms. Barrett writes frequently. “There she would lie hour after hour passing her hand over a white page with a black stick; and her eyes would suddenly fill with tears; but why?” Flush wonders. This misunderstanding, far from creating a gulf between the two recluses, leads to “a bond, an uncomfortable yet thrilling tightness.” Without words to get in the way, they form a “peculiar intimacy” immune to any sort of misinterpretation, doublespeak, or half-truth. They can do nothing except understand each other perfectly.

As 1842 slips into 1843, then 1844, then 1845, writing and Flush, Flush and writing, remain Ms. Barrett’s personal world. There’s a certain unity achieved. A pet, after all, can’t talk back any more than a piece of stationary can. Can’t edit, can’t rebut, can’t compliment, can’t question, can’t crack a joke. But pets aren’t stationary. They can console and comfort and play and offer a physical warmth that pen and paper will never match. In that quiet, cloistered room on Wimpole Street, desk and dog become two sides of the same coin, fulfilling, respectively, all the needs that words can, and all those that they cannot.

***

Ms. Barrett’s poetry eventually attracts the attention of Robert Browning, another London poet, and the two strike up a written correspondence. Browning soon begins to call on Ms. Barrett in person, and her relationship with Flush is forever changed as she slowly comes out of her shell, supplementing their bond with a new kind of thrilling affection. But her dedication to Flush, and his to her, is apparent throughout the human courtship. When local petty criminals kidnap Flush, Ms. Barrett disobeys Mr. Browning and her family and takes an unprecedented risk by traveling to the thieves’ dilapidated house in rough-and-tumble Shoreditch to personally demand the dog’s safe return. Once Flush has at last arrived back at Wimpole Street, Woolf relates, he “read her feelings more clearly than ever before. They had been parted; now they were together. Indeed they had never been so much akin.” 

Ms. Barrett and Mr. Browning elope and move to Italy, where “just as Mrs. Browning was exploring her new freedom and delighting in the discoveries she made, so Flush too was making his discoveries and exploring his freedom.” Both woman and canine find new sources of excitement and fulfillment, and their relationship becomes “far less emotional now than in the old days; she no longer needed his red fur and his bright eyes to give her what her own experience lacked.” Flush, for his part, is now his own master. He “goes out by himself, and stays hours together,” Woolf quotes from Mrs. Browning’s letters. Yet, through all this, we are assured, “the tie which bound them together was undeniably still binding.” When it comes time for Flush to die, he is reposed in a Florentine marketplace. Seized by some unspeakable, but perhaps entirely knowable, urge, he wakes with a start, makes a beeline for Mrs. Browning’s home, and dies in her arms. Woolf’s description of the mortal moment is matter-of-fact: “He had been alive; he was now dead.” But this near-monosyllabic narration isn’t detachment; it’s earned brevity in a relationship that was never verbal in the first place.

Such getaways, where separation may make the heart grow fonder, are out of the question at present. Like Ms. Barrett, we’re pretty much stuck in our rooms, hemmed in by distractions digital and print, and, if we’re lucky, a furry companion or two. Neither books nor pets care much for our personal affairs. Their indifference lends them stability. The world turns, but text on the page doesn’t rearrange itself. Crises unfold, but Max still hops around on his three legs, never seeming any the worse for wear as he begs each morning to be let outside to sunbathe on our front porch and terrorize any birds foolish enough to venture into our front yard. Yet neither relationship is entirely one-sided. Books yield new meanings as we read and reread them, finding ourselves “seen” in entirely new ways. And pets, living things that they are, often seem to know when we need them the most. 

This is, perhaps, their primary dissimilarity: books, for all of their interactivity, are static. The best ones almost always outlive their authors. The average housecat, on the other hand, lives no more than two decades. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poetry is still read today. Flush, Woolf reports in an endnote, has been buried in the vaults of a 15th-century patrician house in Italy for over a century. Ephemerality makes all the difference. My copy of Flush, although it is mine, is ultimately a monolith. But Max and I, we’re in this together.

Sam Schuman is a fourth-year College student and Editor-in-Chief of Wilder Voice.

Categories
Voices

In My Own Skin

by Miranda Purcell | Voices | Spring 2020

Image by Katarina Mazur

I first became aware of my body in a middle school biology class. I wore a skirt and stood at a lab table. I remember hearing, and then seeing, a pencil roll towards me and land at my feet. A male classmate crept over on all fours and the moment he stopped by my shoes I realized he was attempting to look up my skirt. I kicked the pencil away, my face burning. “What’s wrong?” he asked.

Shame filled me for days. I didn’t want my body to be looked at. Especially not in that way. I hadn’t even kissed a boy yet. I didn’t want one to look at my underwear. I didn’t tell anyone. I wasn’t even sure if he had been trying to look up my skirt. What if it really was an accident? What if I had just assumed that he was looking up my skirt? Did that make me a pervert? Should I not have worn a skirt? I decided that the answer to all these questions was “yes” and wore pants for the rest of the year.

To keep my mind off my 14-year-old body being viewed as a sexual object, I threw myself further into track and field, where it was viewed as a machine. What was once something I did after school to kill time before my mom picked me up after getting off work soon became my raison d’être. I had a close group of friends on the team. We would run laps around the middle school field in a tight pack. Occasionally we would go across the street to the high school track. We watched the varsity girls run relays and sprints and hurdles and were reminded that we were about to join a nationally ranked program, and that training hard was the only way to succeed. The front runners on my team were allowed to join varsity, eighth-graders competing against seniors in high school. When we saw them run with the older girls, we were constantly reminded of the rewards of strength, hard work, and dedication.

These values stayed with me when I made the varsity team as a freshman. We were expected to be at practice six days a week. If we missed more than three days, we were off varsity. My training as a sprinter consisted of a series of workouts, often drawn up by the sprinting coach, Schultz, and explained to us while we stretched. Stretching took at least 20 minutes. I learned to isolate my muscles, and I knew exactly how I needed to stretch each one of them to ensure that I had full range of motion.

Then the workout would begin. Sometimes we would do 10 200-meter repeats. Sometimes we would do extended fartleks, running the straightaway of the track and jogging the turn for two miles. Sometimes we would do a specialized practice to focus on starts. We had weight room sessions after practice, lifting to increase our arm strength. There was one drill where we held a 15-pound dumbbell in each hand and pumped our arms for 30 seconds to strengthen our biceps and get us used to moving our arms faster. We would finish up every day with a core routine, six minutes of nonstop ab workouts that brought me to tears the first time I did them. But soon, they became second nature as we all crunched in unison.

I learned to relish the burn that I got from workouts. Sometimes, when our head coach, Levy, oversaw our practice, he would yell out how many times we would repeat a sprint. “Purcell, you can do five or six. Up to you.” I would always do the extra one, desperate to prove myself. As we ran, he shouted out the seconds going by so we would know exactly how slow we were going. “25, 26, 27, 28, 29… ”

Racing was the time to prove myself. All the work I put in, 10 months every year for five years was tested by the 30 or so seconds I was out on the track. Waiting for races to start, I would stand in a group of girls and wait for races to be called, clenching sweaty palms, steadying garbled breath. My bladder would press on my tight, high-cut spandex bottoms as the familiar nervous pee sensation grew. The rubber scent of the track was salty and dense. I would jump a few times, thighs to chest, and shake my legs out, feeling every muscle in my body move in the exact way I wanted it to. The official would blow a whistle. “On your mark!”

While a few races stick in my mind, there are many I do not remember. My breath and the blood pumping in my veins would overtake me and I usually lost my vision to black and white blurs towards the end of a race. Sometimes I would fall over after crossing the finish line. Once, I threw my body across to win. My right side was cut and rubber-burned for a week.

As I slowed down from a race, first to a jog, and then a walk, my vision would come back. I would look up at the board to check the times. Part of me would be happy for winning. The other part of me would be upset with myself for not having broken a personal record. I would consider what I did wrong. Maybe my start was off. Maybe I stopped driving too soon. I would turn around and see Levy, writing on his clipboard, not looking towards me. “Time?” he’d ask. “27.9,” I’d say. He’d wait a while before responding, and I’d hover uncomfortably next to him. “K,” he’d reply, and would turn away from me. I’d be hit with a feeling of failure and step off the track, cursing myself.

I quit track in the spring of my junior year of high school. The tendonitis that began in my knees in eighth grade had spread to my hips. Every time I walked my body cracked. If I took a wrong step, pain would shoot up my sides. My running wasn’t where it had been two years ago. I spent nights wondering if I peaked at age 15. When I went to my coach to hand in my uniform, he asked if I was quitting because I was having problems at home. I said that I wasn’t, opened the door of the gym, and left. 

I barely ran my senior year of high school, choosing instead to focus on school and music and my friends. I noticed a change in my body quickly—because I wasn’t running six days a week and working out, my muscles lost their definition. My thighs went from defined to fleshy. My bras stopped fitting as I re-went through puberty, which was stunted due to intense exercise. I became curvy. Part of me welcomed this change into a womanhood that I thought would never come. The other part of me was embarrassed by the size of me. I began wearing baggier clothing that would hide my boobs so I wouldn’t get looked at in the street. I hated how my thighs looked when I sat down, stretching across the entire seat of the chair. My arms became weaker and flabbier as fat collected. I couldn’t fit into most of the clothes I owned and had to buy new ones. I was uncomfortable in this new body that wasn’t toned or strong. 

During my freshman year of college, exercise took a backseat. There were friends to make and groups to audition for and parties to go to. I chose to restrict what I ate rather than exercise. When I ran for North Shore, we were given loose meal plans that ensured that we would be eating for performance. We ate around 3,000 calories every day to help us build and maintain muscle. At college, with no muscle to build, I ate salads, french fries and ice cream almost every day. I wanted my Stevie selections to match those of my best friends, two five-foot, conventionally skinny girls who fit into every item of clothing they tried on. For spring break freshman year, the three of us went to California. While we were in Los Angeles, we shopped a lot, looking for fun vintage clothing. I remember tears rolling silently down my face as I struggled to put on yet another pair of jeans that didn’t fit me, overhearing them exclaim how good the other looked. After a few days, I decided to stop trying on pants and instead watch them and give feedback. I wanted to be like that, and so the less I exercised, the less I ate. I felt worse and worse, and wasn’t even losing weight.

I remembered cases of exhaustion on my team. One of my teammates was iron-deficient. Another had diabetes. I remembered watching my teammates faint in front of me and Levy running towards them, yelling, “Has she eaten in the last two hours?” Even though I scared myself into eating more, I started feeling better. I went on runs again. I tried to ignore the nagging voice in my head that told me to go faster. 

Diet culture has not been particularly rampant on campus during my time here. Diets are frowned upon, met with protestations like, “Diets are so bad for your body!” and “You have a fine body, why would you ever want to lose weight?” and “Love yourself!” If you wanted to diet you were a Bad Feminist and a Bad Woman. Changing your body meant that you didn’t love your body, and not loving your body was Bad. I was tormented by the angel and devil on each shoulder as I scrolled through Instagram and saw my high school classmates at bathing-suit institutions—schools in Florida where the most popular major seemed to be going to the pool. I would end up in a rabbit hole of model-girls who were my age or younger so frequently that I had to unfollow them all. 

Instead of diet culture, Oberlin students participate in busy culture: two people coming out of the library comparing how busy they are and how little they’ve eaten because they have no time for food. “I totally skipped lunch today. I was sooo busy.” My stomach rumbles just listening . It’s cool to miss meals because you’re “busy.” Yet, if I call it the “homework diet,” people get mad at me. So, I learned to shut up and continue putting unholy bites of my lunch into my mouth. 

College hookup culture made me reconsider my body. Long gone was the machine it used to be. I had grabbable hips and often had to force unwanted hands off them. Even though I had a conventionally “desirable” body type, I hated people acknowledging my figure. People I slept with would say, “you have such a nice body.” The eighth-grade science class flashed across my mind. I would respond, “stop talking.” 

I don’t miss the injuries or my demanding and impossible coach, but I do miss running competitively. Training gave me a sense of control. It was in those moments on the track where I knew my body most intimately, where I understood every muscle and its function, where I knew that I was strong and capable. I’m trying to get back to that feeling. I was home recently and decided to go to the track for a run. I wanted to get a few laps in, nothing fast, just feel the bounce of the rubber against the soles of my Asics. As I walked through the metal turnstile, I drew in the atmosphere of the complex. When we ran we were on exhibition. Having a body, I think, is being a constant, living exhibit. I’m still negotiating the terms of that exhibit. I stretch a bit, and I feel the familiar burn in my calves, the one that lets me know that in this moment, I’m in control. It feels safe. I step onto the track. Right now, the sun is setting, the best time to run. The air is cool. The track feels soft, and warm, and resilient. 

Categories
Voices

Artifacts

by Ben Richman | Voices | Spring 2020

Image by Katarina Mazur

I looked through my uncle Burt’s binders and plastic bags filled with stamps. They were scattered haphazardly in boxes in the corner of his soon-to-be empty apartment. He had died here only a few weeks earlier, entombed by beautiful hardcover books about art and history, commemorative plates and china, and hokey tchotchkes from around the world. After his leg amputation he became disinterested in his own health. It was a background responsibility that ranked far below collecting memorabilia and purchasing books on the internet, which he squeezed into the small apartment where he lived alone. 

Unobstructed sunlight pressed through the blinds, adding stripes of shadow and light to the brown boxes marked for storage. The tall bookshelf in the living room, which reached up to the ceiling, was now almost completely bare. There was an overwhelming sense that my family was intruding in a space that wasn’t ours. I stayed focused on the stamps as my uncle’s siblings rummaged through boxes in his closet, deciding what to keep and what to sell. 

Hundreds of imposing red Queen Elizabeths, drawn with her nose upturned, lay next to Japanese cranes printed in baby blue ink. There were commemorative stamps honoring the “Legends of the West,” with paintings of scruffy men in brown cowboy hats who probably killed buffalo for fun and died of tuberculosis. These rugged men, packed in their plastic bag home, rubbed shoulders with technicolor postage of James Dean staring nonchalantly ahead with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, and Richard Nixon shaking hands with an aged Elvis Presley, surrounded by American flags and eagles. 

“I can take these,” I said quietly. I was 14 and could care less about stamp collecting, yet they felt important to preserve. I remember my uncle’s focus as he delicately cut out each individual stamp and glued it in its appropriate spot in his binders. That same stern face, focused on properly preserving his collection, could also stretch to fit goofy smiles and contort to punctuate absurd accents. He would try to get me interested in stamps that most people wouldn’t look twice at as they pressed them onto envelopes stuffed with letters to distant lovers, old friends, and maybe a pen pal or two. To most people, these intricate stamps disappeared into the gray background of their lives. 

It was during his deep immersion in the world of postage that the first warning signs began. It started as a pain in his calf that soon spread up to his thighs, and eventually prevented him from walking. He ignored the physical signs of calamity, not wanting to deal with the growing pain, allowing it to become the gray background of his own life. He was indignant at his siblings’ insistence that he go to a doctor, or even get health insurance. My family’s nagging only pushed him farther into apathy, along with my own whiny eight-year-old voice, which pestered him to stop smoking outside my family’s Passover Seder. He would always brush me off, saying something along the lines of “mind your own business.” 

Then, all of a sudden, it was too late. After he died, I sifted through the hundreds of stamps, with beautiful prints of colorful plants and birds, as well as cultural icons, glistening in glossy ink. They still seemed proud and dignified, but there was a cold loneliness hidden within them. I made sure to pay attention to the details in each one. The stamps demanded attention, a demand that was ignored by most, but not him. 

***

A stoic Lenin reclined in an armchair with an open book in his lap as he looked down at us from the top of Burt’s bookcase. His authoritative glare seemed to follow my sister and me as we decided what to take from the souvenirs, which ranged from a Russian doll of communist leaders to British tea cups and kitschy snow globes. He originally had plans to travel Europe after he graduated college, but canceled those plans when his father got sick. Eventually he got a job with the Virginia Food Stamp program in order to be close to his parents, and stayed in Virginia for most of his life. He was sent to Russia in 2002, ten years before he died. It was there that he gained a fascination for Russian culture, which was reflected through the stacks of books on Russian history and the many Soviet knick-knacks, which filled bookshelves and end tables. To Burt, there was no such thing as dipping his toe into a subject. If something sparked his interest, it became his life’s devotion. 

“It was a CIA- and State Department-run program to help the post-Soviet Russian government create a food stamp system so that people wouldn’t starve to death,” my dad said on the phone. He punctuated this with his signature nervous laugh, which was always reserved for awkward silences. Burt spent most of his time traveling to Russia for business and stayed in his sister Phyllis’ basement over the summer. It was those summers where our stories overlapped. 

I also often spent my summers at my aunt Phyllis’s house. I was too scared to go to sleep away camp so my parents would send me away to various family member’s homes just to get me out of the house. Phyllis’ gaudy “McMansion” always smelled like cleaning supplies, pastrami sandwiches, and noodle kugel. There were many activities at her makeshift camp: playing with my cousins’ dog Colby, (whose uncontrollable slobber would soak the shirt of anyone he came in contact with,) swimming in the pool in her backyard, and, my favorite, joking around with my uncle Burt. With him I had the unique opportunity to spend time with someone who didn’t talk down to me. In between flinging me into the pool and making jokes about my aunts’ oversized handbag and large pink hair curlers, he would give me small insights into his mysterious world. I remember him towering over me as I sat restlessly on the floor by his legs. 

Chto ty khochesh’ delat’?” He said in Russian. He sat across from me in his sister’s living room. The room was ornately decorated with her own collection of items. Clown figurines were placed carefully on shelves next to colorful 1920s-style Barnum and Bailey posters with elephants and acrobats. My aunt Phyllis cherished these items, though they often scared my sister, who feared clowns. 

“It means what do you want to do?” 

I repeated it slowly “Shto-tee hoe-chesh di-el-et.” 

Net.” 

“Ni-et.” 

“That means no.” 

Suka.” 

“Su-ka.” 

“That’s a bad word you call someone if you’re angry.” 

“What does it mean?” I asked with 10-year-old amazement. 

“I can’t tell you.” 

“Please tell me.” 

“I’ll tell you when you’re older.” He changed the subject by making up a song about all the things in my aunt’s purse, which included spilled mayo and a swarm of ants. 

He continued moving back and forth between my aunt’s house and Moscow for five years before his leg pain got more severe. His narrowing arteries were left untreated, causing the infection to spread. They waited to treat him because he didn’t have health insurance, pushing him aside once he finally made it to the hospital. The only option left was amputation.

“Can you give me a hand?” He paused for a moment as he rolled through his sister’s kitchen in his wheelchair. It had only been a few months since he left the hospital and he still sometimes felt phantom pains in the space where his leg used to be. “Actually, I could really use a leg.” He said with a straight face. I laughed uncomfortably even though I felt like I shouldn’t. He was not averse to jokes that made everyone uncomfortable. Phyllis laughed loudly, used to his dark humor by now. She always laughed at his jokes. He used to say that she escaped from the “asylum for the easily amused.” 

I was going through my awkward preteen phase and felt tense every time I had to hold a conversation with him. His jokes seemed less funny then, and I prefered to do teenage things like listen to music on my iPod and text my friends as an excuse to not engage in the agony of social interaction. I should spend more time with uncle Burt, I remember thinking as we drove out of Baltimore after visiting his new apartment for the first time. Next time I see him it will be different. I didn’t want it to be awkward. I could sense that he was disappearing into the background of our lives. Despite this, I kept hoping that things would change, that our relationship would grow. But I never got the chance. 

***

It was my older sister who found them, tucked away in his bedroom. I never saw them, but heard about them second hand. They were classy photos, in black and white, of naked men in cowboy hats, boots, and nothing else. They draped their muscular bodies across each other in artful poses. 

“That doesn’t necessarily mean he was gay,” Phyllis said, trembling slightly. “If he was, he would have told me.” Tears began to collect in her eyes. Her metal bracelets clattered as she wiped the moisture away. She usually had a strong, put-together demeanor that never slipped. She always knew what was right and wasn’t afraid to disagree with colleagues, doctors, or experts of any sort. I had never heard her voice tremble before. 

“Would Grandma have been mad if uncle Burt came out to her?” I asked my dad, six years after they had both passed away. I had always assumed that it was because of the shame that my grandma might have placed on him that he never came out. From my perspective she was a woman of traditional values. She was a Hebrew teacher for most of her life and was very active in her synagogue. My dad was silent for a moment as we sat together at a midtown restaurant. 

“I don’t know,” he said. “I think she would have been okay with it.” 

This was not the answer I expected. I wanted a concrete reason he had kept this hidden his whole life. He never married, never had kids. Why did he never tell my aunt or my dad? They both would have been open and accepting. Why did he live his whole life alone? There had to be a reason. There had to be someone to blame. It was only two years after I had come out to my mom as she helped me move into my freshman dorm. It had taken months for me to muster the courage, but afterward, I regretted not doing it sooner. It’s possible that maybe he could never even admit it to himself. Maybe his internalized shame was so deep that it lasted his whole life. 

“He ran away from school and hitchhiked to New York,” my dad said, interrupting my train of thought. I now imagined him, young and scared, traveling to a new city. What was his life like? Was he happy there? Was he alone there, too? 

He left school without telling anyone. I imagined my grandma’s face as she paced in her small duplex, phone pressed against her ear, pushing up her cat-eyed glasses as anger and fear began to rise from somewhere in her stomach. I could see my dad as a young teenager, with his curly brown hair, which would eventually spread out into a Jew ’fro. I imagined him playing football with the neighborhood boys, oblivious to what was going on until he entered the house and felt the stress emanating from Grandma. 

The waiter brought us our food and the check. My dad’s round face and graying short hairs were beginning to look strikingly similar to Burt’s. 

“Eventually, he got a job and an apartment for himself. I went up to visit him a few times. He really didn’t have any money then. He would steal silverware and condiments from the diner down the street. Yet he still saved up enough money to take me to a Broadway play while I was visiting.” 

My dad smirked as he told me this anecdote. He had always loved musical theater and would sing show tunes with me and my sister when we were younger, but it was his older brother Burt who originally showed him Broadway. 

“He used to say that it didn’t matter whether you had money or not, the theater was too important not to go.” 

As my dad talked, some of the lost pieces began to form back together. I could now picture Burt’s young smiling face as he watched the lights on the stage. Remaining questions, however, still swirled in my head. Did he find what he was looking for in New York? Was he even looking for anything? The images of gay men in the magazines and magnets that were hidden in his apartment floated above these questions like a threatening dark-gray storm cloud about to burst. But rather than rain, the gray clouds thinned out and spread across the horizon. There was no cathartic release, only endless gray skies. 

***

How early did he know he was attracted to men? I knew since the seventh grade, around the time when Justin Bieber transitioned from sweet teen heartthrob to bad boy. I watched the “Boyfriend” music video on repeat that year. Even though I grew up in a liberal suburb in New Jersey I still kept those feelings hidden in the dark back rooms of my brain, sheltered by the clutter of everyday life. It wasn’t until later, when those feelings grew even stronger, that I decided to open the blinds. I didn’t want someone to discover the truth by searching through my collection of artifacts after I died. I remember the anxiety and fear that pushed me to keep myself hidden. I couldn’t imagine having those same feelings in Virginia in the ’60s. It made sense that he wouldn’t come out, but the truth is that I don’t know what Burt went through. I wanted to believe that maybe he lived freely for that brief time in New York. Maybe he wasn’t alone. Was he ever able to be honest about himself to anyone? I wanted so badly to know about this side of his life. I hoped that maybe a close friend or old lover that we never knew about would try and get in contact with us and all of my questions would be answered, but there has only ever been silence.

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Voices

Double Alienation

by Xiaoqian Zhu | Voices | Spring 2020

Image by Jacob Butcher

A Chinese Student in polarized America.


On a steamy August day in 2011, my classmates were preparing to go back to heavy loads of schoolwork and face the ticking clock in each classroom counting down to Gaokao, the Chinese college entrance examination. I was boarding a plane at Hong Kong International Airport, grasping a file folder with my passport, documents, exchange student guide, a map of San Francisco International Airport and a few pages of introduction to Louisiana. I knew Louisiana would be different from the America I saw on TV—skyscrapers, bridges, busy streets with burger joints and dim bars. “Louisiana is one of the poorest states in the US,” I read. What would that look like?, I thought to myself. Surely still better than the poorest parts of China? Words from Obama’s 2008 victory speech in Chicago, which I learned about on my Casio electronic dictionary as English practice, began to sound in my memory: “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.”

I landed in America as part of a high school exchange program. Before that, I was studying at one of the most selective public high schools in Guangzhou. I cried on the phone to my mother for feeling dumb in math and physics classes, and felt small while my classmates were running Student Union, winning national academic awards, traveling globally and performing on world-class stages. I wanted to keep up with my peers, and that included studying abroad—roughly 150–200 out of the 1,000 students in my class ended up getting a Western college education. I thought by going to America, I’d shake off all these pressures of always achieving and be appreciated for my personality, finally be free and happy. The magic words Obama spoke were soon to be met with a completely different, cold, harsh reality. The true America was about to unfold in front of me.

***

For the first 3 months in Louisiana, I struggled to fully understand English spoken with a Southern accent. But that did not stop me from doing many things for the first time: I read a corny English love novel, attended a dance party, taught my classmates Chinese history, performed a monologue in drama club—things I could not do in China due to the intense focus on studying. But there were also many nights I spent tackling American history, a much thicker textbook than my Chinese history textbook despite America’s significantly shorter history. I was mesmerized by what America was “about.”

Talking to Americans was just as eye-opening, in its own way. My rich, spoiled, white host sister rolled her eyes at friends I made: poor white girls who liked coloring and math, a daughter of two lesbians, Pentecostals who always covered their bodies fully, a Black teen mom, and other Asian exchange students.

I was determined to blend in as an equal to American kids. I wanted to break the smart, studious, nerdy Asian stereotype. However, my determination was not rewarded. Instead, I had my first taste of racism. As the only Chinese girl in town, I thought “exotic” was good. It was rare, after all. I even prepared myself for loads of eccentric questions. But at a point they stopped being just eccentric. The words I was looking for to describe questions like “Does China have internet?” were “racist” and “ignorant.” But I was 16 and in a foreign country for 3 months. I didn’t know how to use those words as weapons to fight back. So I kept the injury to myself.

It got worse when my white host sister started calling me “Chi” and laughed boisterously at me for looking “Chinese” during a Chinese circus show on a holiday trip to Nashville. “Is that your brother, Chi?” She burst into laughter. It was the first time I felt that being “different” meant “inferior” to some people. Nothing prepared me for this. Not High School Musical, Friends, or Titanic, the few exposures I’d had to the idea of “America.” Not even the early warnings about racism from people back home. I didn’t know then what it is like in reality.

It took me many nights of tears to swallow my fear and finally be brave enough to say, “I can’t do this anymore.” When I transferred to another host family—a young white Baptist couple fond of the Southern conservative lifestyle—and a private Christian school, things were a little bit better. However, while she treated me politely, my second host mom still considered it “rude” of me to not attend church with them on Sunday mornings, despite my explicit disbelief in Christianity. Later I realized that they took me in to “educate” me about God. My difference made my classmates, teachers and host family all the more eager to spread the Gospel—the “good news”—to save me from “ignorance.”

Secretly, I had wished my anxiety for the future could be resolved by believing in Jesus. But I knew the brutal competition of American college applications awaited upon my return to China. A white friend didn’t understand why I had to go to some so-called “elite” and expensive college in the US rather than attend the local University of Louisiana campus like her. I could try to explain to her what education meant to a Chinese family like mine, that it was worth it for my parents to send me across the ocean to seek a better, perhaps “elite,” alternative. But instead I said, “I just have to.”

***

Naturally, my college search became a search for the very opposite of Louisiana. I was looking for a crowd that would value diversity and champion tolerance, inclusivity, and love as well as empathy for the “different.” With that spirit, I was immediately drawn to an online post about an elite liberal arts college in the heart of Ohio.

Oberlin stood out as my curiosity for the “other side” of America grew—an all-accepting sanctuary for marginalized, left-leaning intellectuals. It seemed that if I attended Oberlin, I would be surrounded by educated people from metropolitan areas who would have had interactions with Chinese people and also possess a fair amount of knowledge about my culture. I wouldn’t feel unsafe because minorities like me, a Chinese international student, would be heard and seen. Being different would not only be accepted but celebrated.

For anyone who’s idealized a romantic relationship and gotten their heart broken later, it is not hard to guess that my love story at Oberlin didn’t exactly go well.

It started with my observations of the heated campus political climate. Quickly, I picked up the vernacular that students used in discussions and protests: POC, institution, status quo, colonialism, white supremacy. Activism moved me with its passion. It is something that Chinese society would never allow. Growing up being the “good” student, I naturally was attracted to the rebellious nature of activism in various forms—writing, protesting, slam poetry, visual arts, you name it. Politics changed the way I think about my relationships with others and the society I live in. I became a politics major and a news writer for the Oberlin Review, through which I could learn about people of different communities.

Yet it also didn’t take long for me to sense that something didn’t seem quite right. Oberlin’s student body is 64% white, has a median family income of $178,000, and is predominately liberal. While often openly siding with POC, some white students told me they felt silenced as the POC community grew radical and shut down conversations with “it is not my responsibility to educate you.”

People were afraid to speak their minds and confined themselves to their own experiences in public discussions. In my Intro to the Black Experience class, few white students participated in the discussion because it seemed to be intruding on the “safe space” for black students. I was the only Asian student and I also didn’t raise my hand to speak. Not even once. I thought my job was to listen and learn, since I never lived that experience.

If I was honest then and did not worry about what Oberlin activists thought of my unpopular opinion, I would shout out that I didn’t like all this one-sided self-righteous loud-as-hell noise. I was overwhelmed by the arrogant “it is not my responsibility to educate you”-type of rhetoric that filled my interactions with liberal-minded Oberlin students. As an international student, I was not aware of the racial dynamics in the US at the beginning of college, and that is precisely why I wanted to learn. If you don’t tell me what the issues are, I will never know. And the truth is, I WANT to know.

As opposed to the negative stereotypes of Chinese students and scholars imposed by conservatives—job-stealing immigrants or untrustworthy spies—the liberal students at Oberlin seem to have their own issues with Chinese students: Chinese students are seen as a wealthy and privileged crowd; they are the new “whites,” compared to the struggling first-generation, low-income, and undocumented American students, who are often people of color. Indeed, most Chinese students at Oberlin pay full tuition and often come from affluent cities in China. Even at other US universities, Chinese students are often seen as “cash cows” or “walking ATMs” that “fix” the financial situation, contributing about $13 billion to the US economy in 2017–2018.

Chinese, from time to time, is spoken and heard on campus. Oberlin has a campus culture where friendship stems from allyship, especially when it comes to how students find community through identity. Some Chinese students tend to cling together and share similar political views. It wasn’t that I didn’t have opinions; I simply tried to keep them within my Chinese-speaking community or close friends, rather than discuss them publicly, because I felt safer with those who were similar to me and might not challenge me.

When the tension between the US and China started to grow because of Trump’s trade war and cybersecurity concerns, more negative rhetoric about Chinese students, pushed by American mainstream media, began flooding US college campuses. Chinese students were labeled in international newspapers like the New York Times as academically unqualified “cheaters,” or “communists,” unassimilable into liberal democracy, and “intelligence thieves” with ulterior motives. An East Asian Studies professor and advisor to the Oberlin Chinese Student Association suggested that Chinese students “break up” the “gangs” to avoid unnecessary and sometimes even unconscious hostility from our American peers, students and professors alike. Being a politics major, I was already hyper-sensitive to the political atmosphere on campus. I couldn’t figure out why my very own existence at Oberlin had to be challenged this way, as if I didn’t belong. It brought me down on many days.

***

Freshmen year, my mental health started to deteriorate due to academic pressure, and I was suffering the emotional distress of an unhealthy relationship which lasted into my junior year. When I finally got out of it, I was drained. My coping mechanisms completely crashed when I failed an economics class due to extreme pressure and fear of ruining my transcript.

My health went into a downward spiral. It was dangerously optimistic of me to think that medication could fix it all. I thought, naively, that I could go on taking challenging courses, until finally I lost all energy to keep up with schoolwork and struggled every single day to go to class. Lying in bed, unable to sleep, counting the seconds, was my loneliest moment at Oberlin. I remember feeling so helpless that I was reaching out everywhere to friends and professors and talking nonsense. Eventually, I was hospitalized and my father flew in from China to accompany me home after taking medical leave.

What was awaiting me at home, however, were questions, confusion, doubts and disappointments from my parents, relatives and even friends about the reason I “became” ill. A psychology textbook will tell you it was a combination of genetic and environmental factors. No one in my family had been “diagnosed”, though my mother and her side of the family tend to be ill-tempered. So my parents leaned into the environmental factors after I tried to explain what happened to me: “You are too engaged with other people’s businesses.” “You lacked boundaries.” “You are not a fit for politics and you shouldn’t study it, it’s too controversial and you cannot handle it.” “You should not have gone to America, their epidemics of mental illness made you sick.” “You are not able to manage your emotions.”

The worst and most hurtful comment I received was from my aunt: “you are ill because you are too spoiled.” I don’t know what that means. Is it that in my aunt’s eyes, getting everything I wanted, Oberlin and a major in politics, was too expensive and unrealistic for my parents to bear? She never said. My father called my mental illness a “rich person’s disease,” and claimed that no one could save me, not doctors, therapists, friends or God, if I didn’t have the will to “power through”. I felt deep frustration from my mother, who had always advocated for me to study abroad, as she began to murmur, “If I had known you were ill, I’d never let you go overseas.”

***

How do you expect the native to feel the alien when they’ve never set foot on another continent? It has never been equal. In conservative Louisiana, people saw me as this strange Asian girl who was far more interested in getting an A+ in American history than in knowing how to chill and drink at a party. They asked me unbearably funny questions about China and my ethnicity. I was made to feel that being Chinese was out of place, foreign. Yet at Oberlin, a liberal paradise, I was expected, as an international student, to know everything about both national and local political and racial discourse. No one wanted to slow down and explain anything to me. These perceptions and expectations are not the same, but in the end both made me feel that I simply could not fit in in America.

So I left America, a place where both conservatives and liberals alienated me for my Chinese-ness, only to come home to another kind of alienation from my own family, my own people.

Acceptance, empathy, understanding, respect, love… These are the things I crave, not just on a personal level but in the environment I live in. I am aware that these things don’t come easily. Collectively, as humans, we have to learn to practice them together, across differences. It is unknown, scary sometimes. But I am not giving in.

Categories
Voices

The Last Humans

by Robert Stott | Voices | Spring 2020

Image by Robert Stott

We are the Homo sapiens, the only humans. We’re able to communicate complexly, coordinate over vast distances, pass down and preserve knowledge and ideas, build tools and shelters, and bend nature itself to our will. We were not always alone as we are now. For millions of years there were other human species living on Earth, long before we existed. Archaic hominin species often possessed abilities or skills considered to be solely “human” in nature. Homo Habilis, were hitting rocks with other rocks and building crude tools some two million years ago. Homo Heidelbergensis were likely making (terrible) shelters to protect themselves from the elements 700,000 years ago. Neanderthals were making jewelry 430,000 years ago, and probably buried their dead. Around 200,000 years ago, when good ol’ Homo sapiens waded out of the primordial soup, there were at least six different human species living at the same time. So what happened to the others? What wiped out all of our closest relatives, many of whom did things uniquely “human?” And, not that I’m complaining, but why didn’t Homo sapiens die with them? 

The answer is elusive, but a big part of it lies within our capacity for language. There is no doubt that some of our human ancestors were intelligent, at least to the degree that they were capable of communicating, making shelters and clothing, and cooking and hunting with tools among other things. It is likely though, that our sibling species could not use language as a tool. It is important to note the difference between language and speech. Language is the abstract use of symbols in order to represent and explain the environment around us. It also involves the combination of symbols into increasingly complex chains of thought that are representative of ideas or concepts, which can then be conveyed to others. Speech is the physical act of using language through vocal muscles. Language doesn’t have to be spoken, and can be conveyed through gestures, body language, non-verbal vocalizations, and writing. For example, chimpanzees are our closest living relatives and have what is best described as a protolanguage. They have very little ability to control vocalizations and therefore rarely rely on calls or “speech.” Instead, they have over 60 distinct gestures and are able to communicate to each other through body language and signs. The communication practices of the Deaf community also illustrate this distinction. Many hearing-impaired persons use a complex system of physical signing in order to communicate—this is language without speech. There is evidence indicating that Neanderthals, some of our most recent ancestors, may have been physically capable of speech. Language, on the other hand, and the symbolic intuition it requires, was probably impossible for them. 

Homo sapiens evolved with the physical potential for speech, and more extraordinarily, the cognitive dexterity required for language. This ability to speak and create language allowed us to strengthen our social and cultural bonds as well as organize and coordinate. In turn, we were able to out-compete any other species for food, land, and other resources. Although individually we are physically weak, together human beings are the most powerful species on the planet, and our ability to “do language” allowed us to link together and become a global superorganism. 

The capacity to use language is an extremely complicated and rare phenomenon and the truth is that linguists and anthropologists aren’t even sure how it evolved. There are a number of leading theories, but because brains don’t fossilize and there are no records of the origins of language, we can’t know for certain. One thing that is certain is that if there is a singular difference that can be pointed at to represent what makes us unique, it is our capability for thought. Our self-reflexive insight and what we call our consciousness stem directly from our ability to produce and understand language. Without the capacity for symbolic thought and organization both required by and produced by language, we would lack the capacities for mental abstraction and symbolism required to be ‘conscious’ – to understand our own thoughts and the distinctions between the external world and our perception of it. Our “doing language” is a curious process because it both requires our proficiency with symbolic thought, and provides for it, increasing and amplifying our ability to adopt, synthesize, and alter more symbols in a way that seems to be the spark for what we consider consciousness. In fact, what seems to be the epitome of human cognito-uniqueness is that Homo Sapiens exist in realities that they construct in their own minds by absorbing, structuring, symbolizing, and organizing the world around them. All other creatures, (most likely including Neanderthals as well) live in the worlds presented to them. 

How did we get from learning how to make weird sounds with our mouths and throats and gesturing to each other to being a comprehensively interconnected and integrated network of super-intelligent primates?  

The linchpin of human civilization is built directly on top of language, in the form of myths. With language, you can create myths. With myths, you have complete control over the world. They allow intricate social and political structures to form throughout the species and in turn create a linked culture. In this context, I don’t just mean myths as in stories about vengeful gods or old folk tales from the ancient past. Myths are shared ideologies that arise when a social group decides to make some shit up and most of them agree to play by the same rules. Money, political systems or governments, educational systems, and social codes are all myths. For money, we all agree that a certain object is arbitrarily worth something universally agreed upon, and then can be traded in exchange with other arbitrarily valued objects. Political systems and governments are made up of vast systems of completely conceptual abstractions put into practice, like economies, laws, and social codes. All of these things are fictions, concepts made up and agreed upon collectively. Herein lies the strength of the human union. 

Humans as we are today first appeared some 200,000 years ago. After a bit of dicking about and sitting on our bipedal behinds, we end up starting to really comprehend—symbols begin appearing in our minds and, soon after, we find we can manipulate them. We experience the outside world not as passive bystanders but as perpetual builders. The world is constantly being classified, organized, and reconstructed in our minds. We see things around us, give them representations in our heads: we see a tree and we can identify that it’s a tree. When we see other trees, we know they’re trees. Then we start to move these symbols around, come up with new combinations or variations: there are different kinds of trees, trees can be a source of food, trees are made of wood, wood makes shelter, and so on. After that we start to use hand motions and then vocal projections to universalize and give physical form to the symbols we have in our minds. Symbolic representation is more complex than simply reproducing an object and its relations in our head. Concepts are symbolically realized as well. Things like sadness, pleasure, death, and colors all lack a distinct physical form, but are nonetheless still presented in our psyche as having meanings, relations, implications. Because of this new method of describing and understanding abstract conceptions like these, we become able to explain and share ideas beyond the practicality of staying alive—practices involving the dead, spirituality, and art all became possible. We share these symbols with others of our kind, and we are able to convey things about the world around us not only to ourselves but to others. 

So, we develop language that gets more complex as time goes on. After some more standing around with our thumbs up our collective ass, generally being killed on a near-constant basis by most things, we start strengthening our social coordination, allowing us to greatly expand our individual lifespans. We form families beyond biology. Tribes develop social codes and ideas, coalitions of members of our species living together and sharing ideas and feelings on a mass scale. Social systems start to become more complex, and soon we end up in an era where there’s agriculture, towns, cities, huge gatherings of humans trading ideas and beliefs. Then there’s a rapid acceleration of human development, both in population and socially. We end up forming cities and then nation states and then countries, until we have a linked civilization across the globe. We’ve become the rulers of the planet, a species with unprecedented power. 

Let’s take a step back. Although we may be doing fairly well as a species now—insofar as we’re not dying faster than we are being born—it has been an extremely unpleasant journey for us. Archeological evidence shows that there was a point around 75,000 years ago where the human species bottlenecked to somewhere between 3,000 and 10,000 people, making us an endangered species. For a time, we were unbearably close to dying out and losing thousands of years of progress, growth, future lives, and civilizations. Through sheer luck, stubbornness, ingenuity—or possibly a combination of the three—we managed to bounce back from the bottleneck, exploding into the future and developing more rapidly than the planet that created us could ever hope to keep up with. 

We evolved over millions of years, growing and changing through time. We came into existence as the Homo sapien, and spent the majority of 200,000 years shitting our pants and dying because of disease, famine, hardship, and nature, all of which had literally been killing us at every possible opportunity until now. We may still have those problems but by and large we’ve pushed back death, conquered the planet and mowed the lawn, put nature in a cage and maybe accidentally killed it. It took us 200,000 years to get to the first billion Homo sapiens in 1804. In 1927, the population reached two billion, then three billion in 1959, four billion in 1974, five billion in 1987, six billion in 1999, seven billion in 2012, right billion in the few years, and we will eventually level off around 9–10 billion (assuming the planet isn’t plunged into a nuclear winter in the near future). 

Without our ability to wield language as a tool and as a weapon, Homo sapiens might have died out with the rest of the humans in the last 200 millennia and millions of years of human evolution, the rise of sentience and sapience, may have come to an end before it even had a chance to truly develop.

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Voices

How to Find Home

by Lucy Kaminsky | Voices | Fall 2019

Ian Ruppenthal, Hood and Lure

At nine months old, leave the Upper West Side apartment your parents brought you home from the hospital to. Retain no memory of it. Move into a big house in the suburbs with a view of the river. Play in the sprinklers, build zip lines and fairy houses, invent games with your brother and sister. Color with chalk and pick berries. Fall in love with this house and cry with your older brother when your favorite tree gets cut down. Be the baby of you three, falling twenty-two months behind. There are three boys next door, all of whom you will have a crush on, but especially the one your age, the middle one. You’ll run around with these boys and swim and stray too far from your homes. Their parents will divorce when they are young, elementary school age. Their mom will move away. They will be around less and less. 

Ring Neighbor Ruth’s doorbell. Talk to her and drink orange juice and eat strawberry hard candies. You call her Neighbor Ruth because your father’s mother is Grandma Ruth. She has a small white house and no children and monochrome rooms. You all love her. When you have a snow day, bring her a crepe you made. Every Halloween, trick or treat at her house first. 

Go to all the parties your parents host—dinners, holidays, weddings, fourth of July barbecues, parties where your dad’s whole office comes up for the day. Make challah or do something else adorable so that everyone will fawn over you. Ask your mother if she’s drunk after your parents’ holiday party and watch her laugh in response. Feel unsettled by this answer but relieved to see her happy. Soon enough, your parents won’t throw parties anymore. 

Try to accept that your parents are getting divorced. Let the news that you are moving gut you. Let the divorce tear open a hole inside of you that you will spend the better part of a decade, or maybe your whole life, sewing back up. Wait out the year where both your parents rent a temporary home. 

On the day that your mother finally moves into the new house she bought, get there early and sit in the bathtub and read while you wait for the movers. Unpack as quickly as you can in your new pink room with your big white bed. Put in white shelves to organize all your books by genre and author. 

Fight with your sister over your shared room at your father’s house. You will decorate it floral and purple and she will exile herself to the downstairs office with a daybed. Don’t let her resent you for it—she put herself there. Keep your drawers bare, your life completely at your mother’s house. Don’t let anyone come until a full year has passed. Eventually, let your best friend come over, and let her meet your future stepmother. Wonder why you are still empty and heartbroken. You cannot figure it out. 

Turn fourteen and fifteen and sixteen and seventeen and eighteen. Use your mom’s big kitchen to teach yourself to cook and bake. Decorate your wall with quotes and photos that make you happy even when you’re sad and lonely. Bury yourself in your big bed during summers and winters of depression. Get a smaller bed so you can have more space in your room and less space for your grief. Watch your brother paint big canvases of landscapes. Have sleepovers with your friends, get drunk and spill juice in the basement. Knock on your sister’s door when she has boys over, refuse to be the forgotten little sister. Junior year, take your skirt off on the reclining couch with that cute boy with whom it would never work out with. 

Get new appliances and do your homework at the kitchen table decorated with a border of painted lemons. Make candles and spill wax on the bamboo floors. When it’s cold out, take a shower while you wait for the bath to fill. Take lots of baths in that big tub, in the last house you can call yours. 

Watch TV with your mom in her California King bed all through high school. As you come closer to graduating, your mom will talk about moving, but do not let yourself feel it or deal with it. You will leave for school and you will never come back to that house again. Bring all your stuff into your father’s house when your mother moves. 

Make space for yourself. Take out the old curtains and lamps and pillows and replace them with new, white ones. Watch your family fill itself out and build itself back up. Make a huge mess that your father will complain about, but clean it up before you go back to college. Drive up and down and take the train and the subway to escape the hole you’ve been hiding from since your mother sold your house. 

Avoid thinking about the word home. Every time you come back to your parents’ houses, swear you never will again. Go to Ohio. And every time you say you won’t, come back to New York. 

Spend a summer in Brooklyn and be depressed and exhausted and narcoleptic. Smoke too much weed and start thinking that you’ll get into drugs. Go to Israel, to LA, to Nashville, to Portugal. Get yourself out. Keep hiding from what’s eating you alive. 

Stop boiling. Spend a summer with your father. Sit in the Adirondack chairs on your lawn and look at the butterflies in your garden. Roll joints and smoke from your bong. Your father will complain and tell you that you need to stop lighting incense in the house. Fight with him about tattoos. Sit on the floor of a room furnished with the way your childhood bedroom was, cut out pictures from magazines and glue them to another piece of paper. Bring three of your best friends to sleep on your floor. Stop hiding as much. Fight with your dad in a park in Nolita and tell him you’re not going to his wedding. Then tell him you will. 

Ian Ruppenthal, Feeding

Start to move toward acceptance. Fight the instinct to run away and sit tight as much as you can. Yell at your sister and best friend from middle school for being bitches. Feel grateful for the people in your life. Apologize for being mean. Tell everyone how you really feel. Make your father take you to look at the house down the street he wants to buy and don’t freak out when he puts an offer on it. Fixate on the poem “WHEN THEY SAY YOU CAN’T GO HOME AGAIN, WHAT THEY MEAN IS YOU WERE NEVER THERE.” Fixate on that title. Think about the idea of home. Start to create it for yourself. Grapple with the idea of your father getting married. Give yourself permission to not have it all figured out. 

Think about your first home, with fairy houses and a zipline and your favorite tree before it was cut down. The three neighbor boys are all at Duke now and Neighbor Ruth died a few years ago. Your sister and brother graduated and you are across the country at school. Think about how you’ve grown up. Try to remember what it felt like to be six, to be in that big yard and to catch fireflies and think your idyllic life was what everyone had. Love that you are still the baby, even after all these years. Take comfort in the things that don’t change. Learn that home is not a place or a feeling or a state of mind, but what you had, even if you are unsure that you will again. This is where you can start. 

Categories
Voices

Love and Death

by Kate Fishman | Voices | Fall 2019

Emily Harter, Minotaur Sleepover

I’m reading The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion on the subway, and in the Starbucks a couple blocks from my internship at a literary agency. I usually take my lunch breaks there and ironically, because it’s pretty much all I do at this internship, I read. It’s January. This is a good book to read in a city—surrounded by people, but having a private experience. I love having a private experience, so I love being alone in cities; the ability to imagine is that much more palpable. 

Joan Didion is a celebrity writer, which feels a bit like the academic version of a famous ballerina. She’s the sort of wealthy elite who, at least in this book, rarely points out her own privilege. But she’s also so observant and interesting that she’s beloved anyway. The glamor of the film sets and houses and beautiful trips described in her book feel untouchable and not to be envied, because her husband has suddenly died and her daughter is gravely ill. 

She was living in New York when her partner, John Gregory Dunne, died. Her book about this tragedy calls on you to imagine, not in the way where you bitterly shake your head and say, “I can’t imagine,” but in the way where you actually do it. At the time I was reading, I was away from my partner for one whopping month, for the first time since we’d begun dating, and it was difficult for us. Didion’s book made for an interesting reflection—what would I do without this person? How does the total loss of partnership deconstruct your life? 

My parents, brother, and I wondered for a while when my cat, Twilight, was going to die. Twilight was the love of our lives. She’d first come to our back patio years earlier—before we ever saw her, we heard the distinctive timbre of her meow, and looked out through the sliding glass door into the dark to see her silver tail silhouetted. She had a kind, round face and huge green eyes. Her fur was thick, soft, and gray. She’d tried on all the neighbors in our town house complex, but soon she became our cat. Anytime we so much as moved the screen door, we’d hear a musical jingle (from the bell on the collar we’d bought her) and see her slender form bounding down the hill toward us. She was a magical cat, behaving like a dog, coming to us at the slightest provocation. She just wanted to live in our house, darting between our legs and up the stairs, and once inside, all she wanted to do was sleep. She was a creature of the utmost comfort. Of course, before a few months had gone by, we had taken her in for real. 

I believe that being a cat person means understanding solitude in tandem with closeness. Knowing a cat is developing sensitivity to their every noise and motion—which little twitch of the tail signals that they want you to stop touching them, which shift of your leg means you’re now lying in the right formation for them to join you on the sofa. I think people can be like cats too, and I have always loved celebrating aloneness in such a way. While in the city, I did this amid a sea of faces and bodies ebbing and flowing through the subway and out onto the street and back again at the end of the day. I’d return to the empty basement apartment where I was staying, cook a small dinner, watch some Netflix, maybe FaceTime my partner, and fall asleep. He made me feel relaxed in a way no one else quite did—as though being together was, in some sense, as honest as being alone. No matter how much I loved being alone, I would miss being with him. 

A large part of Didion’s book is about her conviction that John was coming back, somehow able to return. This was the magical thinking. It’s always struck me as quite a lovely title, quite whimsical—maybe because “magical thinking” calls on us to think about the imaginings of children, about the feeling of falling in love, about fairytales. Didion’s magical thinking let her believe that her husband, who had died without warning or chance to anticipate it, was not really gone. Often throughout her book, she tries to parse whether he had known he would die, or expected the coming of his own end. Because they were both writers, she investigates through words, close reading their lives for signs of both departure and return. The Year of Magical Thinking is painful and tender, like a wound. 

My grandma died on my birthday, the year I turned eight. My birthday party was in the afternoon, in a pumpkin patch, attended by a beloved group of my three best friends. There is a picture to commemorate this occasion. We are well-lit by autumn and all in need of braces. 

That night, my whole family came over. We and my mom’s sisters and my grandparents lived within an hour of each other. Someone had promised me sometime earlier that my grandma would be well enough to be at this party, and though she was not there I was gently dissuaded from asking questions. I understood she’d spent much of the week in the hospital. 

The next morning, my parents woke up my brother and me and told us that my mom’s mom had died. I imagined that this had happened sometime after I’d gone to bed, imagined my mom waking up to take the phone call. 

I cried a lot. There was a wake and a funeral. I remember seeing my grandma in the casket with extreme clarity. I remember a lot of hugs. I remember not being able to look at her without crying, the emotion sweeping up through me each time as though it had been lying dormant somewhere behind my lungs. My mom’s eulogy for my grandma was partly based on the book The Lovely Bones, where the girl’s heaven is the halls of a high school. She imagined her mom’s heaven as a picture window where she could sit and look out, her cat curled in her lap. My mom couldn’t deliver this eulogy because she was afraid of bursting into tears, so my dad did instead. 

My mom told me years later that the story I’d always assumed was wrong — my grandma had died in the very early morning on the actual day of my birthday, which was a Saturday. Not that night, not after I went to sleep. She was dead when we went to the pumpkin patch, and she was dead during my birthday party that night. My grandpa had been there. The whole thing was his idea; he told my mom and her sisters not to tell any of us kids what had happened yet. He didn’t want to ruin a little girl’s birthday party. I imagine him at that birthday party. I picture my obliviousness, remember receiving the gift they told me that my grandma had picked out for me: a spiralizer, that would let you turn out beautiful patterned shapes across a page. It was my favorite one. My grandpa’s partner was dead. 

I don’t know how to describe the moments before death, nor am I the most qualified. But there’s a certain immobility that’s heartbreaking and feels so natural, the body gently closing itself down for whatever reason it needs to. My guinea pig, Iris, died when I was a kid. One morning, she was suddenly unable to move. Guinea pigs aren’t known for their agility to begin with, but she was rolling to her side rather than standing. Her breathing looked enormous in the otherwise stillness of her body. The deterioration was fast, a matter of hours. Animals, I learned then, know when they are going, and go. Like clockwork, or like magic. 

We can feel magic manifest in both love and death, I think, or maybe in both love and grief, intertwined as they are. I think this is felt particularly with animals; all of their communication is nonverbal, external, and actualized. In the same way that toddlers experience pain, or loneliness or hunger or frustration and can’t help but to scream and cry, pets are honest in ways that adult people can rarely hope to be. 

Toward the end of Twilight’s life, her teeth snaggly and her fur knotty and her smell tangy and warm, she developed distinctive behaviors by which to communicate her desires and articulate her needs. She’d always been vocal, sometimes abrasively so, but in her old age, if left alone in a room she would yowl incessantly until someone arrived to pet her and calm her down. Never particularly hungry before, she started eating literally everything—bowls of grated cheese and unattended fish or meat were her favorites, but even salad was a likely target. While before she’d often drink out of glasses left on the table, she now knocked them over completely, not out of any desire to drink but probably just out of a desire to fuck up our shit. 

A day or two after I finished The Year of Magical Thinking, Twilight died. I was spending a weekend at home, and when I got off the bus and climbed into our car my dad was waiting for me with the news. It was an odd feeling—over a year after her decline and plateau, I had always expected and feared that I would be at school when Twi died. How ironic that she had gone when I was just an hour and a half away from home. I remember my parents attempting to say a few words about Twi over dinner and all of us dissolving into tears. 

Missing Twi, I realized in the days after her death, was missing her physical presence. I missed her heavy body weight over her tiny paws as she walked across me as if I were a piece of furniture, her big well-padded head, the way that she would rub on people by shoving her wet nose directly against them and then pulling her face to the side. She was full of patient, simple love. If you picked her up when she didn’t want to be picked up, she’d dart out her head with a warning nip. She never hissed at anyone except for our other cat, George. I missed how she would sleep with me, her warm lump of a body curled against me. I loved waking up in the morning to find her there. 

I think the death of an animal is particularly poignant because of the total lack of verbal closure. It’s insufficient to the relationship: no matter how much you baby talk to your animal or how well you learn all of their many sounds, you’ll never be able to speak to each other. It’s hard to know if they were happy and comfortable, if they had closure for their sweet life, if you could have done something to make their last moments more peaceful. Of course, you can talk to animals—I would walk into a room and Twi would meow at me insistently and I’d meow back and she’d meow back and I’d meow back. It usually felt like a productive conversation, usually ended in an amicable grunt. But now that she was gone, I couldn’t bring in too much philosophy. I couldn’t reflect on her words or thoughts. She was a cat; her desires were obvious, visible, and physicalized. 

The breakdown of her body was similarly inevitable. In the hours before her death, she dragged herself dejectedly across the floor to be found out of bed in the hallway or bathtub by my parents. One side of her face was slumping downward, like someone who’d had a stroke. When she became less able to express herself, the idea of what she may have wanted at the end of her life without ever being able to say it was sobering. 

I sometimes talk about Twi in the present tense, and when I’m home I often forget that she’s not still there. I never leave full glasses out on the table. If I’m heading out the door, I always pull it quickly closed behind me—Twi was always an indoor pet. She rarely tried to go out, especially as she got older, but my dad still believed in an element of her wildness and suggested that we were trapping her. 

A week before she died, in a rare burst of energy from her frail, six-pound body, Twi dashed between my mom’s legs and out the door while she brought in groceries from the car. My brother retrieved her quickly, and they were all dismayed at the return to a former habit. 

But my dad fixated on the idea that she wanted to be outside. After dinner, despite ridicule from my mom and brother, he lifted Twilight, cradled her in his arms like a baby, and brought her out onto our front step. I can picture it, although I was 90 miles away at the time—the view of the lawn in the center of our townhouse complex, everything crisp with frost. I see my dad lowering his nose gently to the tiny cat’s as she sniffed the air. I see them gazing together at the falling snow.

Categories
Voices

A Fool’s Errand

by Sophie Jones | Voices | Spring 2019

Image by Bridget Conway

Carol was beaten to death in her house at the edge of my hometown. There, the developments disintegrate into desert; empty lots and unpaved roads melt into furrows of granite, cheatgrass and manzanita creep back over property lines. When I was little, my dad and I often went exploring in the scrubby dells behind Carol’s neighborhood, tearing the surveyors’ tape off ponderosa branches and pulling their stakes out of crumbly soil. The small-town cops found her body tucked halfway beneath a tipped-over bookcase, as if there by accident. She was wearing a lavender camisole; she had eaten a salad for dinner.

Did my mom and dad sit me down to tell me about her murder, as they’d done with the other things parents are obliged to explain to their children; death of other kinds, divorce, sex? I lingered after dinner to hear the adults speculate, gleaning what I could before my mom ushered me away. I learned how to avoid the topic with her, how to pursue it with my dad. Alone in the privacy of traffic, riding in the front seat—a novel, grownup realm to which I had only just gained access—I calculated the right moment to turn down the radio and ask him a leading question.

Carol’s killer left no fingerprints, no DNA. No murder weapon was ever recovered.

The story of the murder is a good one; now, I tell it at parties. It is scandalous without reflecting too badly on me or my family, depending on which details I choose to share or withhold. Sometimes my delivery is too glib. I am too familiar with the facts of the case, or else in an attempt to prove detachment––from my hometown, my parents, the murderer, the victim––I let too much slip too casually. Both listener and storyteller find themselves too close to the crime to justify morbid interest any longer. That evening, Carol went for a three- mile run in the half-wilderness beyond her backyard. She texted her daughters, she called her mother. She sustained seven blows to the head. She did not feed her terrier dinner. The small-town cops discovered her corpse, wrapped it in a tarp, and transported it to the city in the back of the coroner’s pickup.

That evening, Carol’s ex-husband Steve went for a long mountain bike ride. He had a spare key to Carol’s house, their daughters’ childhood home. There was a club missing from his golf bag. He owed Carol alimony. There were incriminating Google searches on his computer; Steve claimed he was writing a crime novel.

Good true crime writing maintains distance. The writer must know how to tear some facts from court transcripts and police reports, and how to imagine others out of thin air. They must be able to deftly weigh these against each other so the reader never pauses to wonder how the writer could know such things. The writer must decide which details to include—that Steve’s younger daughter made her father a vegetable stir- fry the night of her mother’s murder—and which to omit—that my father and the murderer learned how to roll a kayak in the brick-red spring runoff of the Pariah River their freshman year of college; that the two remained best friends for twenty years until a final rift a few years prior to the murder.

Then, there are details about the case that I’ve almost certainly made up: that Steve entered the house before Carol did and unscrewed all the light bulbs. This can’t be true, because she was home for hours before his arrival. I must have read that somewhere else, about someone else.

Writers omit details about the murdered, or else, as readers, we skip over them. They are too frightening and too small. Get too close, and pain ceases to be palatable.

Steve killed Carol in midsummer, in the desert, in the evening. It might still have been light outside when she died. I imagine that Steve and Carol’s two daughters are the same ages as my sister and myself; they are several years older.

After Carol’s death, my dad began a true crime memoir about her murderer. In his writing, my father is a distant narrator; detailed catalogs of Steve’s skillful manipulation of the legal system, the media, his family, friends, and neighbors. His relationship to my father isn’t mentioned. This is true at least for the drafts I was allowed to read.

The true crime author’s authority comes from their closeness to the story. But if the writer neglects to maintain a strategic tension—allows slippage between what is real and what is embellishment, or confuses sordid details with truly sickening ones— they risk losing their reader. The writer is revealed to be a fabulist, or worse, a leech; simultaneously self-serving and -pitying. When the author becomes too close to the story, their credibility is threatened and they become a character themselves.

I was eleven when Carol was killed and seventeen when Steve was sentenced to life for the crime. I went to middle school and high school, and my dad stopped writing his book. A notable true crime author wrote a brick-sized paperback about Carol’s murder; my dad is quoted on the last page. My parents got divorced, and my dad moved back to the town where I was born, the town where Carol died. Like hers, his house is in a peripheral cul-de-sac that meanders into the scrub oak and granite dells, a landscape of eroded pink stone fractured by new construction. The town is bigger than it was when we moved away.

When I visit my hometown, my dad and I still hike in the dells but rarely pull the surveyors’ tape, it’s a fool’s errand– the houses will go up regardless. One late afternoon, halfway up Granite Mountain, my dad pauses in the shade to consider the sheer, patinated cliff face above us. He and Steve used to rappel there, crack climbing up and then lowering each other back down over and over until backing off the precipice was second nature, until the trust was absolute. He points to a jumble of house-size boulders at the base. Steve could easily have clambered to some anonymous crevice and secreted his bloodied clothes away.

I peel off my shoes and socks and swish my feet in the shallows of a dammed reservoir outside of town. I can feel the ominous sucking current of the dam’s spillways. A year after the murder, the city dredged this lake for the missing golf club and found nothing. My dad and I climb to a fire look-out on top of nearby Mingus Mountain. Directly below us, nestled in the ponderosa, a nameless pond shines like a silver dollar. My dad thinks it is more likely Steve disposed of the weapon there.

Categories
Field Notes

The Genderfuck Art of Stephen Varble: A Conversation with Curator David Getsy

by Nell Beck | Field Notes | Spring 2019

Jimmy DeSana, Untitled (Stephen Varble performing Gutter Art with onlooker), 1975. © Jimmy DeSana Trust.

In 1976, Stephen Varble got out of his limousine and entered Chemical Bank in the West Village of New York to settle a fraudulent withdrawal from his bank account. Wearing a gown of fishing net embellished with sequins and fake dollar-bills, breasts made of condoms filled with cow’s blood, and a toy jet-fighter as a codpiece, Varble silently stormed the bank. A cardboard speech bubble that read, “Even though you may be forged – Chemical still banks best!” was suspended over his head. When he was told by the manager that he could not be helped, Varble punctured one of the condoms under his gown, and used the blood that poured from it to write a check for “none million dollars.” To applause from the customers, Varble turned towards the door and wordlessly exited the bank. He had been wearing only one shoe, to “symbolize his economic loss.” He climbed back into the limousine and drove away.

It was almost by accident that David Getsy, OC ‘95, a professor at the Art Institute of Chicago, stumbled upon the work of Varble while doing research for his upcoming book on a different artist, Scott Burton:

“I came across an unpublished interview where Burton was talking about the role of sexuality in the arts,” Getsy says. “He said one of the most radical artists of the seventies was Stephen Varble. He explained one of these performances where Varble spilled milk at an art gallery out of one of his dresses, and I had just never heard of this person. And I thought I knew my stuff! So I filed it away as a name to pay attention to.”

Since his death in 1984, Varble had been largely forgotten by the art world, due in part to his own steadfast rejection of self-promotion and publicity. By the time that Getsy, by then a distinguished professor of art history, had first heard of him, Varble was almost completely wiped from the art world’s short memory. In 2011, Getsy was asked by the arts organization Visual AIDS to curate an online gallery of slides, which included photographs of Varble. It was this that finally pushed Getsy to try to answer the question that had been plaguing him: who, really, was Stephen Varble?

Getsy embarked on what would evolve into a years-long project culminating in three exhibitions on the work and history of Varble. Currently, ONE Archives Foundation Gallery in West Hollywood, California, is showing “The Gutter Art of Stephen Varble: Genderqueer Performance in the 1970s, photographs by Greg Day,” until May 17.

“Varble himself had never had a museum exhibition,” Getsy says. “His last exhibition was over 30 years ago; nothing had been written about him in an art publication since, like, 1977.” Instead, much of Varble’s work was kept in the personal collections of the people he had shared his life with. Films were stored in closets, photographs were packed in boxes, pieces of costumes were tucked away in basements; Varble was scattered all over the place.

For Getsy, this unconventional approach to research involving real people rather than collections was both rewarding for his work and a moving personal experience. “What was great about this process was that even though it required a different kind of research practice, it became very much an emotional, a lived practice… more and more people were excited and honored to share their stories and their memories,” says Getsy. “It didn’t feel like work. It felt like discovery.”

Most likely, that is how Varble would have wanted to be remembered. During his lifetime, he was decidedly opposed to any forms of institutionalization or elitism; a steadfast refusal to conform is what drove much of his work. Would Varble have been happy to see his work displayed in galleries now, if he had been so determined to avoid them in the ’70s? Perhaps not. But, as Getsy argues, Varble’s work is too meaningful to allow it to be lost. “I think that’s the one cautionary tale,” Getsy says. “No matter how self-determined, DIY, oppositional, [it’s important] to be like, ‘What is not just the impact today… but what is the way you think about what the legacy will be of this work? How will it be remembered?” As stirring as it is to deny the legitimacy of institutions, the messages found in Varble’s work deserve a platform today. It feels paradoxical to try to honor an artist who so firmly denied recognition of any sort; yet if Varble preferred anonymity and oppositionality in his life, the significance of his work now reaches beyond that.

***

Stephen Varble was born in Owensboro, Kentucky, in 1946 to a staunchly Christian family. Growing up, he was a choirboy. Varble’s upbringing instilled a deep sense of religiosity in him, one that would carry him through much of his work in his adult life. “My parents wanted me to be a missionary,” he once said, “but I became a monster instead.”

While studying English at the University of Kentucky, Varble immersed himself in Lexington’s LGBT scene by joining the Pagan Babies, a queer theater group. He moved to New York in 1969 and received an MFA in directing from Columbia University in 1971.

Varble soon began to move into the world of 1970s New York performance art, particularly through his burgeoning romantic and collaborative relationship with the influential Fluxus artist Geoffrey Hendricks. It was this relationship, as well as inspiration he found in the groundbreaking work of the filmmaker Jack Smith, that allowed Varble to establish himself as a major figure of seventies queer art.

Varble’s work revolved around disruption and garbage. He constantly placed himself in spaces where he was not welcome, and was an outright challenger of gender binaries, capitalist structures, and the elitism of the art world. He only grew more radical with time. Hendricks largely influenced Varble’s transition from film to theater and performance art. One of the earliest examples of this evolution is seen in Varble’s “Blind Walks;” dressed in all-white and walking blindfolded through the streets of New York, Varble would blast Stevie Wonder songs from a cassette tape recorder and carry a blank board strapped to his arm, Jesus-like. Moving through the city without sight put Varble in an incredibly vulnerable position – yet this was only the beginning of a long career of fearless disruption.

Varble and Hendricks split in September of 1974. Following the break up, Varble developed a female alter-ego whom he dubbed Marie Debris; she would come out not only in staged performances, but also at dinner parties. In this genderqueer costume, usually composed of pieces of trash and everyday items such as chicken bones, pipe cleaners, and milk cartons, he would parade the streets of New York performing various forms of public interventions. For his series Costume Tours of New York, Varble, dressed in his brazen ensembles, led spontaneous and unauthorized gallery tours in SoHo for anyone who wished to join. These tours, like many of his performances, were largely wordless except for cooing and clicking sounds. It was a flamboyant mockery of wealth and class pretensions, as well as commentary on the blurred lines of gender identity.

Varble’s disgust with the classism and celebrity that he saw pervading the New York art scene only grew as he began to gain more recognition against his will. It was inevitable that, no matter how much he challenged the system, the system would eventually conform itself to embrace him, thereby taking away from the message he was trying to send about the perils of hierarchy. Yet Varble managed to deride the recognition he was gaining. He had only one gallery show during his lifetime, which he sabotaged brilliantly. By titling it “The Awful Art Show” and forcing the gallery to price each piece outrageously high so as to prevent anyone from buying anything, he assured the failure of his own exhibit.

But the attention didn’t abate. Varble felt his work was being more and more restrained by it all. “He became increasingly frustrated with how much the most radical actions or the most fantastical costumes would still be absorbed by the art world, by the art institution,” Getsy says. “This is the story of not just Varble, but all institutional critique and oppositional art. It’s built into the narrative of progress that contemporary art defines itself through… absorb[ing] its challenges as part of its reason for being.”

In 1977, Varble retreated from the spotlight, in part in reaction to the newfound attention, but also because he met his last partner Daniel Cahill, a married merchant marine. “Cahill helped reactivate the religiosity that had been part of Varble’s worldview since he was a teenager,” Getsy says. “It really enabled him… And actually the most strident anti-capitalist statements all come from this moment when he’s re-embracing the idea of a spiritual mission of salvation from late capitalism.” During these years, Varble was producing plenty of work—as well as being a performance artist, Varble was a novelist, playwright, and lmmaker—but he focused mostly on video, returning to the medium that had captured him early on, before first meeting Hendricks and falling into the performance world of Fluxus art. But in the midst of making his epic movie, “Journey to the Sun,” Varble got AIDS. With the film unfinished, he died on January 6, 1984, in Lenox Hill Hospital.

***

Varble in the “Demonstration Costume With Only One Shoe” for the “Chemical Bank Protest,” 1976. Credit © Greg Day

In early March of this year, HIV was cured in a man referred to as the London patient, the second such case since the global epidemic began decades ago. Nearly twelve years previously, one other person had been cured of the virus that causes AIDS. The Berlin patient, who has since been identified as Timothy Ray Brown, 52, now lives in Palm Springs, California.

Both men were also diagnosed with cancer, for which they received bone marrow transplants, and it was those transplants that ended up containing a mutation resistant to HIV. The success of the most recent case of the London patient has inspired a newfound hope that a cure for AIDS could be discovered in the near future.

The impact of the AIDS crisis on the art world was monumental. Many artists were lost far too early, but the epidemic led to the production of incredibly powerful and politically influential work. Some more well-known examples might be the AIDS logo series by the collective General Idea, or Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ slowly disappearing pile of candy, which symbolizes the loss of his partner. Today there are many artists, such as Kia LaBeija and Jonathan Molina-Garcia, who are still working to fight HIV/AIDS through their work.

Following his own death of AIDS, the crisis of the 1980s and nineties swallowed Varble’s work of gender nonconformity and replaced it with national fear-mongering and homophobia. To preserve Varble’s queer art, hidden by history, Getsy had to divert from traditional forms of research; he needed to connect with people rather than databases, friends rather than institutions. Because Varble was so opposed to museum or gallery collections, what saved Varble’s work were intimate connections more than anything else, a valuable, but fleeting, mode of conservation. Through Getsy, this memorialization was honored and then expanded upon through the current exhibitions.

Getsy talked to Hendricks, Varble’s partner when he first moved to New York, along with a plethora of others who had, in some way or another, shared a relationship with Varble. “That was what was exciting about it,” Getsy says. “To realize that it was all there, and it was held by his network of friends.”

Varble’s work comments on many of the concerns that still resonate today—anxiety around late capitalism and the false and restrictive nature of gender binaries. As Getsy says, what Varble—an outcast, a queer man who lived and died during the AIDS crisis—did so well was to take what society has “devalued or… discarded, and reclaim it and love it and give it value… I think that’s the big relevance.”

Varble’s story is one of genderfuck, of oppression, of the power that comes from radical self-expression, and of the injustice of the AIDS crisis. Getsy’s work in reviving and curating Varble’s work brings to mainstream conversation topics that were once only found in the corners of society. Varble’s gender nonconformity and his embrace of the trashy and the crude are today at center stage, and it is Getsy who is encouraging us to confront that. And as other 1970s guerilla artists and performers, like the Cockettes, Lorraine O’Grady, and Hunter Reynolds, are also being rediscovered by today’s generation, Varble now seems to fit right in.