Categories
Voices

Racing Like Turtles

by Zane Markosian | Voices | Spring 2019

Image by Julia Friend

In the morning the air smelled hot and a little bit smokey. I rolled over next to Kirby, in the large and plump bed of the “second house.” We were in the smaller house that had been built years earlier—next to the real cabin—in order to provide more sleeping space at the lake.

The real cabin was like walking into a relic of the 1950s and like a hastily put-together set for a vacation dream. It was built of logs and the walls labored under the weight of the kitschy decoration, sagging all around the main room. There were snowshoes and replica skis and fishing poles and old coca-cola ads. There were also amusingly raunchy posters for movies from the ’80s and more than one stylized “gone fishing” sign.

I stepped out onto the porch, eager to get into the real cabin because I didn’t want to miss any summer revelry. The screen door slammed behind me as I walked into the other house and looked for signs of life. I didn’t really expect anyone to be awake though.

The day before, we had all driven across the state in order to get to Simone’s cabin, and we had spent far too many hours on the tiny gravel roads of eastern Washington. We were staying at Simone’s cabin in the Okanogan and we were celebrating the end of highschool. This was our big grownup vacation and we were lucky enough to be living in temporary opulence. She had driven over a day before us all in order to unboard the windows and to get the cabin ready for the summer.

Hayden, Kerry, and Dory all drove up in a red pickup truck with a canoe in the back, and myself Kirby, Emily, and Patrick followed. Emily had been trying to play the most summery pop music that she could find, and as we bounced over dusty hill, Patrick and I boldly made up words to the sections that we didn’t know.

It turns out that it’s very difficult to find a one specific valley in the middle of the Okanagan region. At the top of one pass, we had come to a t-intersection and Emily directed Kirby to the left but he hesitated. The road was cordoned off and a Forest Service ranger explained that because of a forest fire, we would have to make a detour. One other fire-induced detour like this one and a handful of more self-imposed navigation errors meant that it was late in the day by the time that we finally arrived.

I remember almost falling out of the car when we pulled up the cabin—I was so desperate to stretch out and I was eager to take in the surroundings. We were at the end of a narrow valley and steep hills rose on either side. Behind the houses there were woods, but it was dusk and it was difficult to see much beyond the immediate and pine scented clearing. The other car—with Hayden, Dory, and Kerry—had arrived hours before us because somehow they hadn’t been as messed up by the detours, and everyone rushed down to greet us and to welcome us to summer.

Standing there in the garishly decorated kitchen, I was so eager to get my friends up-and-going. I felt this restless urgency as I squinted through the window, but there really was no prescribed plan. I opened up a package of bacon while I peered through the decades-old panes of glass above the kitchen sink, and I watched some birds swooping across the lake.

It was really more of a pond than a lake. A dam had been added in the ’50s in order to create a reservoir for fishing. Back then, this whole place had been a fishing retreat. It was rented to wealthy businessmen coming from Seattle or Spokane. But that business had dried up (though the reservoir remained), and Simone’s dad had bought the land in the ’90s and built another cabin as well as a little garden plot.

We ate a breakfast that was almost entirely bacon and fruit, and we headed down to join the birds at the lake.

***

Down by the water, the noise was incredible. There was a constant hum of activity: cicadas in the reeds, mosquitoes hovering around our ears, dragonflies snapping their wings. In some effort to banish all this chaos, Simone brought down a speaker. She put on The Shins and we listened in the sun.

You led no celibate life
No skirt while chemicals danced

in your head
You stole the keys to this ride
And your fables are falling tonight

It was almost noon at this point and I was recovering from what had turned into a race against Patrick. We had set off leisurely at first from the edge of the dock.

We pushed into the cool black water and towards the far edge of the pond. I looked at him between strokes—alternating my head left and right with each motion of the arms. His shoulders bulged and even in that dusty afternoon it had been clear that he was a strong swimmer. I felt my heart pounding. We sometimes found ourselves competing viciously with each other and I never understood why. The calls from the dock came to us in between our strokes.

“Whoever gets to other side first can have my second Mike’s…”

“You can’t let him beat you like that…”

Patrick pulled forward a bit and I kicked harder. In an instant I was so mad. As I pulled the water past me I couldn’t help but catalog all the times that he had made people laugh more than I had. And I thought about the undefined—and yet dire—feelings of competition that whirled between the two of us when others were around.

Oftentimes, I brushed these feelings away with thoughts that it didn’t matter, that it was immature to even care what people thought about the two of us, that maybe no one else but me and Patrick sensed this silent perpetual war. But in the water, I could think of nothing else.

With a frenzied splash we both smacked the cliff of the other side. It had been an almost exact tie and the anger was all gone. We bobbed laughing, gasping for breath, and treading water. In a good-natured manner, we fought to shove each other into the rock and I laughed as I felt the cool stone scrape my shoulder and saw small streaks of blood on his. I felt big and I knew that he did too. We swam back together, laughing. Later we would split the promised Mike’s hard lemonade and then have two more together.

***

Emily lay down next to me on the edge of my towel. She curled her wet back over towards me and our arms pushed against each other. I twisted my own body a little bit to my right, away from her. My shoulder left the damp towel and rested on the wooden dock which felt like a thousand degrees. The white, rough wood had been catching the sun all day and it was hard to even walk across barefooted at this point. Still though, it felt okay against the back of my shoulder which was damp from the swim. In middle school I had had a little crush on Emily but now that we were older, and had grown into markedly different people, it felt natural to just be friends.

Simone sat next to us on the dock but because I lay on my back, it almost felt like Simone was sitting above me, hanging over my head. She flipped a page of her book. Without raising my head to look to the water, I kept track of Kirby and Dory as they paddled in a canoe around the little lake. They were circumnavigating it all and they were paddling lazily. In my hand I grasped the now-lukewarm last drops of a Mike’s and the sweetly smell of that drink mixed with the intoxicating smell of Emily’s hair.

Suddenly Simone shrieked and tumbled onto myself and Emily. She had—in an instant—drawn her feet out of the water (they had been dangling) and she laughed as she recovered her balance.

“It was a turtle! A huge turtle just swam up and rubbed against my toe—are there more?” We pulled ourselves up and bent over the dock. “Oh wow there’s another one… and a couple more!” Emily exclaimed while pointing out towards the center of the water. “They’re fast!”

“What happened?” Kirby called to us as the canoe slipped easily up against the dock. We hadn’t even noticed him and Dory paddle over, attracted by the wild shriek.

Mischievously, Dory reached down for a small net which lay in the bottom of the canoe and she asked “want to try to catch one?” Of course we did.

Kirby excitedly declared “Someone can come into the canoe with us and we can paddle while you use the net, and someone else can sit on the surfboard and help us corral one of these turtles.”

I pushed the surfboard off of the sand and I sat towards the back, with the front angling up and out of the water. I watched Simone precariously lower herself off the dock and into the waiting canoe. We were set.

Leaning over to put my chest against the board and my face close to the water, I was able to move forward by drawing my arms through the water. We were so effortlessly quiet—on the surfboard and in the canoe—as we smoothed over the water. The cicadas had persisted and now that The Shins were no longer playing, the late afternoon had become loud and chaotic. But it was much quieter in the center of the pond.

“There’s one!” I called to the others.

They circled gracefully over to my side. “Oh I see it!” But as they drew closer, the turtle startled and dived deeper. We followed in the direction in which the turtle had seemed to shoot himself and the four of us saw him surface a couple yards ahead of us.

Breathing softly so as to not disturb anything I said “I’ll circle around him and try to direct the turtle to you all.”

Dory back paddled in order to slow the advancing canoe, and I turned my board and pushed towards the center of the pond. I rounded back towards the reeds, keeping the turtle on my right side.

“Okay I see him.” Simone crouched in the center of the canoe and reached the net above her head. “What’s our plan?” She asked.

“Let’s get a bit closer,” Kirby answered, “and then go for it.”

“Zane, if it comes to you, you might have to use your hands.”

I really didn’t know if I would be able to touch a real live turtle with my hands. Everything around us stood still for an instant and then Simone plunged the net down. There was a loud splash—followed by a quick scream: “He’s coming to you, Zane!”

I swept my arm through the water, trailing a frothy disturbance behind my spread hand. I had completely missed and my hand swung up empty. The turtle had slid under my board and out to the other side.

The surface of the water became a chaotic frenzy as we all madly tried for the escaping turtle.But we finally got him. From the dock, Patrick, Hayden, and Emily whooped and cheered for us. Dory held her paddle above her head in triumph and Simone dropped the turtle into the base of the canoe. She was afraid of its snapping beak and so as soon as the turtle was extricated from the net, she let him fall.

This went on for hours. In all we probably caught about five poor turtles. At some point Kirby paddled back to the dock in order to grab Hayden’s nalgene and he used the water bottle to scoop some pond water over the turtles in the bottom of the canoe.

Dory was done and while Kirby grabbed the Nalgene, she climbed precariously out of the boat and onto the dock. This led to a grand reshuffling: I stepped first onto the dock and then into the canoe, and Patrick—who until then had been sharing a Mike’s with Emily—pushed himself onto the surfboard. I noticed that she touched his arm as he got up from the dock.

The two-craft flotilla set out for one last conquest. It was a waiting game and while we waited for the turtle to rise back towards the surface, we drifted towards the point that we had seen the turtle last. Then we tried to position our two crafts around the swimmer and we came to the critical moment.

Patrick paddled well on the surfboard and as I swept the net through the water (Simone and I were taking turns), Patrick back-paddled deftly. He could see that the turtle would startle and would shoot between the two of us. And he was right, the turtle darted away from the canoe and towards the center of the pond, and patrick was able to be exactly in the right place. He had timed it expertly.

From the splashing chaos, he drew his hand up. And in his hand, he held the turtle. He was triumphant—and he was the only one of us who had caught a turtle with his own fleshy hands. I had caught at least two with the net, but the net absolutely provided some kind of a distancing.

Patrick tossed the little guy into the canoe and simone scooped some more water to pour over the crawling mess of turtles. We had them all and we began paddling back. Not to the dock but, this time, to the beach. We pushed up the canoe and Patrick stepped up off the surfboard, into the shallow water.

***

I looked back to the beach and I saw Patrick greet Emily with a little smile plastered across his face. Just hours earlier we had been straining through the water side-by- side and I had been intent on beating him. Somehow it was always like this.

When we had been younger, a year- or-so before the cabin in the Okanagan, we had gone up to Lost Lake to spend the night. It was the most haphazard of plans—within a couple of hours, we all had decided we were going, packed some backpacks and set off. And the trip really had been driven by some summertime sense of audacity.

Our tents were on a tiny island in the middle of the lake, and there were narrow little planks going back to the shore, offering a muddy walkway. We wanted to do something big before dinner and so we slid across the planks back to the shore, and set off to circumnavigate the lake.

Almost halfway around we ran into a towering boulder sitting on the side of the water. Moss made a sheen all the way over the water side of the rock and I thought it was crazy to even consider us sliding past on that side. Instead I proposed that we head to the right—away from the water just a little bit—in order to get back around to the left and to get back to our dinner. Patrick balked and I remember myself immediately going on the defensive: “well what do you think we should do? Do you want to slip down the rock? Try to come up with a better plan.”

He smirked. “All I know is that I don’t think we need go all the way around.”

We finally did go my way but it ended up being a much longer detour than it seemed. By the time that we made it back to the campsite it was dark, we were hungry, and I couldn’t stop thinking about how smug Patrick must have been. Remembering back to that day, I’m not even sure that he had been gloating—but I remember thinking of the feud as inescapable.

It was this same strange resentment that floated over my head as I watched him hold a turtle out for our friends to inspect. I also felt a little bit bad for the turtle; his little legs spun, unproductively in the air and there was nothing else he could do.

***

Looking back into a boat full of desperate scrambling amphibians, Simone had an idea. “What if we draw a line in the sand, release the turtles up there by the grass, and place bets as they run back into the water? I can take these ones.” Simone pointed to the three turtles in the front of the boat. “And you guys can have these ones.”

We all loved the idea. I had bent over to reach into the boat and, with a canoe paddle, started to shunt the remaining turtles away from the ones that Simone had claimed. Patrick had joined me by my right side.

“Let’s call this one Escobar,” he pointed to the biggest of our team.

“And let’s call this one Julio,” I answered.

Emily brought down some generously sized tupperwares from the kitchen and we had been using these to transport the turtles. I felt Escobar repeatedly throw himself against the side, in an effort to get out.

The day had become colder very quickly. As soon as the sun dipped behind the wall of the valley, it was as if a curtain had been drawn on the show. After spending hours laying on the scorching pale wood of the dock, I was actually chilly and so I was eager to get these turtles released and back into the water.

Opposite Simone, I scooped the first leathery turtle out of the “boys” team’s tupperware. Julio squirmed unexpectedly in my hand and I almost dropped him. I reached down and held him inches above the wet sand, watching his feet swirl through the air. He must have been so desperate to get back into the water. It didn’t seem totally fair that we were forcing these turtles to race—especially when just an hour earlier they had been happily swimming.

We released the turtles in pairs. There were three races in total and each race was accompanied by screams and cheers from the two teams. The turtles scrambled headfirst towards the safety of the water—an instinct which must have been programmed deep in them.

***

Later that night, we sat around the table and laughed while picking over our remnants of dinner. The pasta was still in a bowl on the table in front of us and I set down my fork, in favor of—instead—just using my fingers to pick out some cherry tomatoes.

I think we were prouder of ourselves back then than we really deserved. Earlier Simone had worried about how salty the pesto should be because her mom usually made it one way. We were all still trying to be like the grownups. She licked her spoon and mused, “you know—I think we nailed it.” Patrick reached across to give her a high-five and we all laughed.

We sat for awhile, content to just laugh and talk over the food on the table, but after while Kirby got up and he came back with a deck of cards. He dropped them on the table and suggested that we play hearts.

“Hearts, really?” Dory asked.

“Yeah—come, on let’s okay,” Patrick responded. Somehow it had become his idea, to play, and he grabbed the cards from Kirby to begin shuffling.

Hayden got up to clear the table and I slinked after him into the kitchen. “What is it with Patrick?” I asked.

“What do you mean?” Hayden asked.

“Well I just feel like there’s always something to prove.”

“Are you guys still talking about the race?” Dory asked as she walked into the kitchen with a stack of bowls from the table.

I shot Hayden a grimace before heading back out to pick up more dishes.

When we were all back around the table, cards in hand, I looked down and realized that I could maybe shoot the moon. I worried about being too bold but there in front of me were the cards: a run of high hearts, some high diamonds, and the King of Spades. With a subtle little

shrug of my head, I played my first card. Someone slipped in a low heart and I played everything off as if—“oh shucks I guess I can roll with that.” But really I was thrilled.

Patrick reacted to me stomaching a heart and what he said was: “Oh yikes that’s okay, Zane.” But what I heard was “you must be so embarrassed.”

Hearts is one of those games where points are bad—but what’s special is that if you somehow have the gall to take every single point, then you actually win. This is what I was trying to do: take every single heart, as well as the queen of spades.

I tried to hide what I was doing. I asked Emily about her plans to run cross country in college in order to distract from my taking the eight of hearts. I asked Dory how she felt about moving to California while I took the four, two, and seven. I asked about the future because that was the biggest distraction that we all shared and I hoped to deflect from my plan until it was too late to be stopped.

But with every point I took, I felt little jabs from Patrick. Even though I wanted to keep my head down and to just play my cards, I couldn’t help but to engage in the back-and-forth a little bit. Trick after trick, the two of us teased each other and tried to appear bigger than we actually were.

Simone put back on the Shins album that we had listened to earlier. As we went around the table, putting down cards and picking at food, Patrick and I kept making small comments. I was eager to laugh a little too loud when he spilled a Mike’s and he was quick to teasingly ask me about how I had cried while cutting the onions for dinner. Our back-and-forth continued throughout the night. We were listening to the same song that we had been while down at the water. But this time a different part stood out to me.

The dust from a four day affair is
now landing
All over the floor and your brown
legs
The gold-plated legs of my rival
Whose eyes had no reason to fall

I still had those lines running through my head as a I fell asleep later that night, next to Kirby. I knew that in the morning we would wake up and do it all over again and the air would still be hot and smoky. We would still be wrapped up tight in the beginning of summer, and Patrick and I would still be racing, just like turtles.

Categories
Voices

Dent Club

Rory O’Donoghue | Voices | Spring 2019

Image by Julia Friend

Waking up on the operating table, I looked down and felt like I saw salsa again, but this time it was blood radiating out from my bandage. My chest was rabbiting up and down, horrifying and uncontained. I remember the visual shock before the pain, but then my eyes spun out and pain hijacked my senses. I had broken bones before—a collarbone, a leg, my nose—but this was another realm entirely. I sobbed in the ICU and begged for anything that could help as my parents massaged my hands. I was on intravenous narcotics, and an epidural was lodged midway up my spine, but I felt sober and busted as fuck.

“You shouldn’t be feeling anything,” the nurse added helpfully as he dressed my bandage, “that epidural is loading you up real good,” and I wanted to bite his head off.

“It… hurts… so… bad,” I whimpered. Each word eviscerated me. Eventually, nurses gave me oral opioids, and I slipped into a groggy din.

***

Ravaged. Such was the immediate aftermath of the Ravitch procedure, a corrective operation for a congenital chest wall disorder—pectus excavatum. The name was like an incantation when I first learned it, beguiling, before I knew its full potential. Pectus Excavatum! Now, almost two years after my operation, the condition sounds much more insidious. It exploded into an epidemic menacing my extended family. I was patient zero.

The night before my surgery, my best friend Amelia called me from Alaska.

“I showed your family the salsa video,” she told me, trying to calm me down. “Your mom laughed but your dad couldn’t watch—he was too uneasy.”

I touched the bruised hollow of my chest, sunken deep in between my pecs and large enough to easily fit an entire fist. I remembered how my friends had eaten salsa out of it at the reservoir several summers ago. The beach was packed, and I was wildly uncomfortable—it had taken a lot of mental acrobatics before I had taken off my shirt at all. Amelia poured the chunky Tostitos over my chest, a makeshift ramekin, and it felt like icy sludge. We went through two bags of Hint of Lime chips, and filmed the whole feast.

Since then I’d grown, escaping most of my high school anxieties. Although my dent deepened in the years since that video was taken, I felt more at ease. This evolving sense of security continued, blooming until my body hit its carrying capacity.

“I can’t believe I’m getting fixed tomorrow,” I confided, marveling at the sheer absurdity of my impending reconfiguration. “No more chips!”

Many months and a twisted series of events later, I found myself comforting my older cousin Keelin on the eve of her own surgery.

“Yeah dude, I’m freaked.”

She looked it. I took a generous sip of cucumber martini as I listened, searching for something reassuring to say to her. I traced the edges of my scar, a year and a half old but still a jagged line etched down the front of my chest.

“It’s a new life, starting tomorrow. You’re going to feel so much better.”

As I spoke, I felt a jumbled knot of responsibility, but also helplessness. Her parents were there, too, all of us out to eat for Keelin’s last non-hospital meal for a while. Everyone was on the brink of unravelling.

“You’re my rock,” she responded, taking my hand. “I’ve been so all over the place. I cried at karaoke till the bar closed last night. I look at how wonderful you’re doing now, though, and I know I’ll make it through.”

“Yeah you will!” I hoped I sounded convincing. “Listen, O’Donoghue Dent Club means business. We’re fighters.”

Later that night, I spiralled through the harrowing events of the past two years. Keelin’s would be the fourth major reconstructive chest surgery in the family, a now far too familiar cycle that all started with me.

I was doing wonderful, but Keelin’s imminent operation had me reeling again. First me, then my younger sister; now, my cousin. I still wasn’t over the shock of such a serious condition lying latent in each of us. What about the others? I worried about my endless clan of Irish-Catholic cousins. What if someone else is next?

***

The human sternum, or breastbone, can tragically go any which way. Pectus carinatum describes an uncommon condition where the sternum protrudes outward, jutting out from the chest wall. Pectus excavatum is just the opposite, where the sternum plunges inward and depresses the thoracic cavity. Each condition brings its own host of health problems, but excavatum squeezes, inhibiting the regular room the lungs and heart take to function. It carves a chunk out of the working capacity of the chest, bowling in where it should be filling out.

This was the main takeaway from the Googling I did in high school; as a clarinetist prepping for conservatory training, I started psyching myself out. What if the crater hindered my progress, or even my career? It changed with puberty and seemed to be continuously expanding. Confident that I felt mostly fine, active as both a musician and a student athlete, I struggled to comprehend its potential. Tracing my contours in the mirror, I gave myself pep-talks.

You’re beautiful.
You’re healthy.
You’re okay.

Pediatricians never said anything about my disfigurement. I scoured the internet, and as I read, I grew more aware of the chest space I lacked. A big chunk was missing. Sifting through pictures and other people’s testimonies, I had no gauge of how severe my deformity was. Or maybe—in some repressed back alley of my mind—I knew something was awry.

Senior year of high school, I made an appointment with my physician. After explaining my concerns and discussing the condition, he red up the ancient HP monitor in the patient room and printed out the Mayo Clinic overview of the condition.

“It’s all I got,” he apologized, handing it to me. “So long as you aren’t in pain, I think you’re ok.” Dismayed by this wet-lettuce diagnosis, I saw no other option but to continue on into the uneasy unknown.

***

With pectus excavatum, rather than staying relatively parallel, the pectus sternum sinks down toward the spine, approaching perpendicular. is intrusion pins the heart against the spinal cord, smooshing the lungs outward. The condition ranges from merely cosmetic to dangerously severe, with many murky stages in between. For conditions that need surgery, several different routes are
available. Circumstances are best when the condition is flagged earlier in life, allowing for easier corrective recourse. For older, more ossified patients, especially those with deep-trench dents like me, the invasive Ravitch procedure is likely the best option.

The primary issue of pectus excavatum is the way the malformed hardware angles the sternum down toward the heart, which is what the Ravitch aims to correct. First, the surgeon severs the ribs and cartilage attached to the sternum. Once freed of the abnormal tissue, the sternum bounces back into correct position, buoyed up by the strong muscles of the heart. A titanium plate is then affixed atop the sternum, fastened it into place with screws drilled into the bone. Once a valley, the chest wall is reworked into a plateau. With reconstruction complete, sternum parallel with spine, everything is stitched back up and made to look as neat as possible.

Over the years that followed my sparknotes-style pediatric visit, I continued my research, and poured over pictures of scars. Some were faint traces, threadlike, and some were gnarly shark jaws. Fantasizing about flatness, I wondered how it would feel to be rid of my own extreme topography.

I repeated this cycle every few months, often following some instance of insecurity. In moments of confidence, I fell back on the cautious ignorance of my uninformed pediatrician, twisting it into reassurance—surely he would have referred me to a specialist if I needed it? But I never fully drove out the incipient doubt lodged firmly deep down.

What if my skeleton bowls further inwards and I slowly squeeze myself out? What if the hollowing completes itself and I have a hole that goes all the way through like a human cheerio? What if I’m impaled, but there’s nothing to impale?

I eventually felt tired and ambivalent about it all. So what. There’s nothing I can do. It was my own little quirk, and sometimes it even had its perks.

Freshman year of college, I’d allow a chosen few to take body shots out of me at parties. It was very intimate, and disgusting, but it was fun. My dent was also immensely practical for snacking—I could firmly lodge a bowl of cereal in it while lying down.

If I breathed in and out while swiveling side to side, my dent would work my lungs like bellows, forcing air in and out. This was completely involuntary—I didn’t have to actually breathe; the squeezing breathed for me. I would feel extremely lightheaded, but generally I thought it was kind of cool.

Moreover, there was a disconnect between the visual and the physical. My chest looked every bit as bizarre as the serious cases sprinkled throughout the internet, but my symptoms didn’t seem severe. A lifelong cross-country skier, I never noticed a discrepancy between me and my teammates, even though the one 25K race I ever did felt like slowly dying a two hour death. I ran, I skated, I swam.

As a wind musician, I pushed. There were moments in orchestra where my vision would blur, but it was usually at a point of musical climax, everyone wrapped in full-blown intensity; I assumed it was hard for everyone else too. During one outdoor concert, I suddenly weakened and felt my clarinet slip between my fingers, nearly hitting the ground before I caught it. I skipped the next few measures, recovering, and was soon fine. These experiences were normal, simply the ones that
governed each day, and I thought little of them.

My symptoms felt even more inconsequential compared to the horror stories that populate the pectus community online. Posture is a big one—some people are permanently contorted, twisting around themselves like frayed rope. Some people can’t walk upstairs without stopping for air. Some peter out mid-sentence as their lung capacity betrays them, working overtime to do half as much.

It was easy to distance myself.

Until things got worse.

As I geared up for my junior recital in April 2017, I was demanding more of my body than before. Practicing nonstop, I registered some weird chest pressure, like a suitcase crammed beyond capacity. I couldn’t stop to think about it. When my big performance loomed close, the pressure turned into pain. I kept it fully relegated to the backburner, unwilling to relent.

My recital happened without a hitch, but the pain doubled down the week after. I called Student Health, hoping for a normal appointment. They instructed me to hang up and go to the emergency room immediately. Chest pain protocol. I felt a sense of something loosening as I headed to Mercy Allen Hospital. Not an emergency visit per se, but the inevitable start of something new.

As I checked myself in and discussed the pain, I was whisked away to what I thought would be any number of different tests. The room where they took me felt tired—cracked linoleum floors, scungy pamphlets, washed-up monitors that probably should have been retired years ago. They did an electrocardiogram to ensure I wasn’t actively dying, and then the doctor on call (a podiatrist) entered the room to talk to me.

“Well, your vitals look good, nothing seems too wrong. We’ve got to talk about your chest though… it’s pretty deformed.”

“Yeah, haha, I know,” I managed, instantly recalling every offhand locker room comment that haunted my childhood. He went on. “Basically, you don’t have enough space in there for what you’re trying to do.”

“Um… what do you mean?”

“You’ve got to work with what you’ve got. Your body is made wrong. At least for what you’re doing. You’re gonna need to make some substantial lifestyle changes or else you’re not gonna make it.”

Well aware that I wasn’t exactly mistreating my body, I was skeptical and upset. What was it that I was “doing?”

I asked if he could refer me to a specialist.

“No, we don’t really do that.”

They sent me on my way, equipped with nothing but a prescription for taking it easy. I called my mom. “Yeah, I dunno.” I binge-chewed gum. “That was pretty useless.”

I located a team of specialists at the Cleveland Clinic, but they couldn’t see me until June. Two months to wait. Cue my liminal, nebulous anxiety. Pressure mounted, but the physical blurred into the mental; I couldn’t tell what was truly internal or not.

I scaled everything back, bowing out of performing for the rest of the semester and begrudgingly complying with Mercy’s lifestyle changes, which felt like a crock of bullshit. I stopped exercising, forcibly relaxed, and waited to figure out what was up.

My appointment finally rolled around, and this time I underwent a complex array of tests. One particular gem was the worst thing I’ve ever agreed to do in any setting—sprinting on a stationary bike and inducing repeated hyperventilation while my blood was drawn. They told me to wear casual clothes, but my skinny jeans and Birkenstocks were devastatingly incorrect. Afterwards, sitting ill at ease in wet denim, I finally had my answer.

The Haller Index (HI) is the standard metric for assessing chest dents. It’s a ratio of the actual distance between the sternum and spine compared to the potential normal distance, with ribcage size factored in as well. An HI under two is considered normal variation, between two and five means possible candidacy for surgery, and cases over 3.5 are severe and would absolutely benefit from surgical correction.

Mine was a 6.9.

“A… what?” I stammered.

“Yeah, it’s a big boy,” Dr. Raymond joked.

“Your HI is in the top 5% worst reported cases.”

“For some people it’s more a matter of cosmetics,” he explained. His voice was warmly comforting, sturdy and tinged with a light asthmatic wheeze. “Their chests are abnormal enough to warrant concern, but we can’t really guarantee that surgery would improve things one way or the other. With you, there’s no question.”

As I listened to Dr. Raymond, I felt as if the leatherette chair firmly beneath me transformed into an ejection seat, catapulting me into the air. I was still recovering from the blood-bike stint, but my heart rate took off again. He went on.

“Your breathing capacity is—at most—70% of what it could be. Your circulation is greatly impacted. Most people in your condition can’t even walk up stairs. We’re frankly pretty baffled that you’ve made it this far unencumbered. It’s going to change your life.”

It was as affirming as it was terrifying. Suddenly, everything leapt into flux. Above all else, I felt quiet validation. Life truly had been as hard as it felt! A less constricted future is possible? I called my parents, excited to finally have some clarity, and told them I had good news.

“WTF,” they reacted when I told them the prognosis, “that is not good news.”

This response sobered me up.

Everything was set to change. I cancelled my plans to study abroad, full scholarship, at 中央音乐学院 (Central Conservatory of Music) in Beijing. I called the clarinet instructor at the prestigious summer festival I’d been accepted to and told him I couldn’t attend. Dr. Raymond thought it best to move quickly, and I scheduled my appointment. I had three weeks.

***

Surgery steamrolled me, flattening everything out, and the immediate aftermath was all violet haze as my new form solidified. My senses slowly trickled back, grappling for autonomy over the dizzying array of narcotics coursing through my system, and I re-met my body. Recovery was an amorphous blur, and I measured it by triumph checkpoints:

Day 2: I breathed my deepest breaths. I cried at the awe of it all.

Day 4: My catheter was removed. Peeing autonomously was a momentous victory.

Day 5: Released from the hospital, I took my first car ride. Even the smallest jostle was an intimate reminder of the new titanium sorely affixed onto my sternum. Still, leaving the hospital was joyous.

Day 7: “You have a visitor!” My mom woke me and stepped out of the way to reveal my boyfriend. “Hi!” he said cheerily. He flew across the country to surprise me, and I was certain I was hallucinating. “… What?” I was dumbfounded, and turned to the wall to clear my vision. But he was there, and my heart flooded with lightness.

Day 10: My drainage tube, which siphoned out upwards of 30ml of bloody pulp per day, was removed. “Exhale!” my doctor commanded as she pulled it out from the tiny incision above my belly-button, but I gasped. The tube was 10 inches longer than I expected.

Day 17: I weaned off Oxycodone. Although I still kept up maximum doses of Tylenol and Ibuprofen, sensation sharpened into a grittier reality. I felt raw.

Day 22: Dr. Raymond cleared me to make the long flights back to Alaska at last. Turbulence bruised me, and I felt like I might split open. I was home.

In an effort to find clarity in all the murky delirium, I walked. I treated myself to a Fitbit and spent my days in the woods, taking my dogs on five, six, seven mile expeditions. Everything was easier than before. Climbing steep hills, my eyes stayed sharp, free of the dizziness I had always taken for granted. Bewitched by interior Alaska’s summer sprawl of 24-hour sun, I walked my way through recovery. Days and nights of hikes turned into weeks and months:

Month 2: I flew back to school for fall semester, relying on complete strangers to lift my bags and open doors for me because I could not.

Month 4: At last, cleared to run! That first time back on the treadmill, my atrophied muscles were quaking but my lungs were so full.

Month 6: Finally, blissfully, I got to take my back brace off. I lifted more than 5 lbs for the first time in 6 months.

These first few months were grueling, full of maddening plateaus of progress and speckled with sharp, bitter pain, but the sheer newness of everyday activities was thrilling. Walking my dogs. Standing up quickly. Holding my breath. Every activity was imbued with a newfound ability. So this is what it feels like.

***

Just as I emerged from the danger zone post surgery, my family flew into chaos once again. Rachel needed dent surgery too. Thirteen and on the brink of high school, my spunky younger sister had gone through the slew of tests back when I was in the hospital, just to be safe. We knew she had pectus excavatum too, and I had urged my parents to get hers looked at while we were all in Cleveland.

“I don’t want her to end up like me!” I guilted them dramatically, and unfairly. They, of course, felt terrible that I’d gone so long without seeing a specialist. And now her tests had come back. Hers was severe.

My parents chose Cleveland Clinic, my own thoracic alma mater, for Rachel’s procedure. Suddenly the four of us were there again. Younger and infinitely more malleable than me, she would be undergoing the Nuss rather than the Ravitch, the minimally-invasive of the two. Nuss incisions are cut at the side rather than down the front, into which a curved stainless steel bar spanning the entire chest is threaded. Angled down, the bar is then torqued outward, popping the malformed cartilage out as if fixing a dented car. If all goes well, the hardware is removed after two years, unlike the Ravitch’s permanent plate, and the ribcage holds its new structure on its own.

As Rachel went through her prescribed pre-op routine the night before her appointment, she maintained ferocious chill.

“It’s gotta get done,” she said matter-of-factly, “so I’m doing it.”

We called our brother, who was born between the two of us and irritatingly unafflicted by the condition. He felt bad, wishing he could be there. He also didn’t exactly know what we were going through, and the older brother in me was relieved to keep him away from all of it.

Rachel sounded so unbothered. She had been by my side throughout my entire ordeal, witnessing my agony in the ICU first-hand, and here she was, assuaging the rest of our anxiety with her own steadfast confidence. I loved her so much for it.

Early the next morning, she was markedly more tense as we headed to the hospital, but still determined.

“I can’t wait to boss people around!” she joked. “You’re gonna be my servants!”

I’ll do anything for you, I thought, terrified. Please please please make it through okay.

Even as she changed into her gown, she kept her resolve. A nurse gave her “happy juice,” a pediatric cocktail to ease the worries most kids experience. She unnervingly laughed herself to sleep. We could do nothing but wait.

Watching my sister go through hell was far worse than going through it myself. From her first waking hours, tripping hard in the “Harry Potter Land” she emphatically described to the nurses, to the long days of harsh reality that followed, I held her hand and willed her to be safe.

She was immensely nauseous, annihilated by each successive incompatible narcotic that her care team tried, and each time she vomited I imagined her bar racketing around inside. I snapped at the nurses. I berated my beyond-exhausted parents, harping on them every time they misremembered a minor detail while talking to doctors. I spent night after sleepless night in her room. Even though I wasn’t helping anything, I couldn’t leave her.

Her surgery happened during my spring break, and as soon as she was discharged from the hospital I went back to school. Her initial recovery was much like mine—hard, amorphous, changing day by day. My family eventually headed home, and I felt a wash of guilt-tinged relief.

“The bar slipped,” my mom said blankly, in shock.

“It’s been moving. They looked closely at her two month post-op x-rays, and it’s rotating upwards.”

I sunk into a sick dread.

“The shift is driving it like a wedge against her sternum,” my Dad followed. “They’re worried it’s going to depress back down.”

Aside from immediate complications, recurrence of pectus excavatum is every patient’s main concern. It occurs in just around 10% of cases. Rachel’s hadn’t fully recurred, but doctors flagged the warning signs during her check-up, and called my parents.

“She’s gotta get it redone.”

It was only a matter of when.

“It’s a little riskier,” her new doctor, a specialist in Nuss redos (who studied under Nuss himself) at Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters in Virginia, explained. “We have to work around all the scar tissue, and we won’t know how much there is until we’re in. But the sooner, the better.” They would remove the old bar, cut away the messy lattice of scar tissue, and install two new ones.

This was my deepest fear. Relapse and a second surgery seemed inconceivably awful. And now Rachel had to go through it.

***

However frightening, surgery came and went, upending everything once again but much more successful than the botched first go round. I couldn’t be there this time, which was probably a blessing for everyone involved.

Fittingly, Hurricane Florence was in full swing, menacing Virginia and complicating an already dramatic process. My parents slept at the hospital because their AirBnB was evacuated. At the center of the storm, Rachel weathered the second overhaul of her body well, and everything went smoothly.

She kept the first bar and fashioned it into an earring rack, mounted on a backboard she painted. It’s a substantial size, at least a foot long and alarmingly thick. “And soon I’ll have two more!”

Keelin’s went well too. She’s now five months post-op, Rachel nearly seven (from the second operation), and come June, I’ll be at two years of unrestricted breathing. Life—this new, more manageable one—feels surreal. I still scrutinize myself in the mirror, chronically self-obsessed, but it’s no longer flushed with fear. I look at myself and think about my heart, lounging around happily in its new terrain. I celebrate my lungs and imagine their abundant joy at inhabiting such luxurious quarters.

Maybe I’ll run marathons. Or maybe I’ll just sit outside, happily taking in each billowing chestful of summer’s air, silky-sweet. Either way, it’s a delightful gift to finally feel whole.

This is the future I see waiting for Rachel and Keelin. We are all getting through this together. It’s a makeshift support group, but it’s a lovely one—no one else really understands. We’re the O’Donoghue Dent Club, an illustrious society composed of our own weird trifecta. Benefits of membership include permanent bragging rights, grisly scars, and a whole lot of shared empathy. The ODC is a highly exclusive club; as Founding Member, I’m hoping for no more recruits.

Categories
Graphic Arts

Issue Artwork, Spring 2019

by Wilder Voice Artists | Graphic Arts | Spring 2019

The following works appear independent of any print piece in the Spring 2019 issue.


Categories
Visual Processes

Visual Processes: Maya Howard-Watts

interviewed by Julia Friend | Visual Processes | Spring 2018


As we sit on the concrete bench outside the Allen to chat, Maya Howard-Watts picks up and meditates on a loose strip of grout.

Julia Friend: So tell me a little bit about how you got into art here.

Maya Howard-Watts: I declared [a studio art major] literally the last possible day. So I came into school thinking I was going to be a bio major on the pre-med track. Because I had a lot of conflicting feelings about going to college, especially at a private Liberal Arts school. So I thought, “OK, so you have the privilege to go here, so you need to be a doctor.” That’s just how it worked out in my mind, and I think that I saw that as a very tangible way to help people—literally healing, you know? And I took a bio class here and it just literally killed me, on top of the fact that all the intro classes are just designed to weed you out. […] And there was a guy in my bio class… we were just hanging out one night, and he asked, “Hey, do you want to look at some paintings by Basquiat?” And—it sounds so cliché now—and I replied “Sure, who’s that?” And he pulls out this book, this big book, beautiful glossy pages. And we were looking at it—Basquiat was the first black artist I was ever introduced to, and something just clicked for me. I was looking at these paintings and these drawings, and thought, “Oh my god, this is how it’s supposed to be; this is what art looks like; I have to do art.”

JF: That’s such a visceral response. What about it [was visceral]?

MHW: It was, it was; that’s the word. What about it—later on that night we were watching Basquiat interviews, and the way that he speaks is genius. We were watching clips from The Radiant Child, a documentary, and there was an interview where this guy—and I think this is common with Black artists, especially with white interviewers, where there’s this element of laughter that’s violent. People turn to tropes, and as [Basquiat] famously said, “I don’t want to be a museum mascot.” […] The way that he manipulated this interview, and the way that he spoke was amazing to me, and it comes through in his work… A lot of what he does, and you see it in his paintings and drawings, they’re just cluttered, they’re full, they’re packed with all of these symbols—copyright, trademark, quotation marks, words, all of these anatomical drawings, everyday items—and it became clear to me that [by] gathering these things in his pieces, you get a good sense of place and deep observation. There’s a rhythm in the way he repeats visual symbols.

JF: I definitely see a lot of those elements in your own work. How have those translated as you’ve become an artist yourself?

MHW: I think that looking at that work gave me a few things, and it wasn’t instant. I mean, it’s really been happening over four years here because like I said: [before Oberlin] I didn’t do art, I didn’t have any interest in art until I realized, “Oh, I have to, I have to.” After that point I stopped going to bio class, and I’d be sitting in Tappan for five hours a day, just drawing. I couldn’t stop. It became a way for me to heal—to draw the same tree over and over again for hours at a time. And of course it will never come out the same every time, because we’re not machines. That carried over in my wrapping, this binding motion—the repetitive action allows me to get in a rhythm that gives me headspace and muscle memory.

JF: Yeah, I was very struck by the video of you wrapping twine around your legs. Can you speak on that? What were you thinking about while you were doing that?

MHW: That was the second shoot I did of that. Initially I had this idea to have this triptych of photographs of me bound. But the photography was just too stagnant. I needed people to see the movement of my body. So I went back after lying in bed for days feeling depressed, and I told myself, “Get up, and go do it.” And that’s where it came from. I heard people ask [in critiques], “How did you get that way? We didn’t see you bound.” So I decided to swap [the photos] out for the process.

JF: And then you get more of the rhythm. 

MHW: Right! And I think that is how I feel a lot of the time: I feel bound. On that day, I felt bound to my bed. Sometimes I walk outside and I feel bound to what I imagine what other people think about me, how they treat me. So binding other objects, doing it to myself, gave me this cunning agency that I was really attracted to.

JF: Material is also very important to you, right?

MHW: It is very important to me. Going back to Basquiat, something that he made me realize were things I already did, which helped me to become an artist. One of which is that I’m a collector, a hoarder. I mean walking over here I picked [up this piece of grout]… 

JF: Yeah, I noticed that! So talk to me about scavenging. 

MHW: So [Basquiat’s] collecting all of these observations; he’s making and collecting all of these pieces of the world, and twine was a material that I collected… It’s this tick that’s been with me since I was a kid. There’s some sort of power in finding these things that people don’t see—that they walk past or don’t consider—that are very real. This [referring to the grout piece] had a life; this looks like a binding substance. So what is that? What is it doing? This is now charged; this has lived a life. So the twine—I was in the Allen, and I saw this piece by Jackie Winsor called “Four Corners.” The piece is a sculpture made of wood and hemp, and I gravitated towards the wrapping and wrapping of the hemp. I thought it was so powerful. And I don’t know what it was, maybe I couldn’t get my hands on hemp and I found twine, but I was struck by the idea of fibers. And suddenly it was, “OK, now I have to read up on twine!” These things come to you, and it’s not accidental. There’s this history behind twine, which is maybe why I was so drawn to it. 

JF: Beyond twine, now that you gather these things knowing that you’re trying to build something integrated, what makes you pick up a material? Has your focus in objects changed over time?

MHW: Absolutely. I’m from Brooklyn, New York, and I ride my bike a lot… and especially in the summertime you see people throwing stuff out in the street, and what I used to pick up—before I was an “artist”—was clothes and books…

JF: And now that you’ve had your senior show, what does the future hold?

MHW: Well, I’m guess I’m going to go out and be an artist… And I’ll just keep picking things up. 

Categories
Parallax

A Book About Happiness

by Dmitri Aleksandrovich Prigov | translated by Isak Saaf | Parallax | Spring 2018

Drawings by Julia Friend

Consisting of poems and dialogues.


TRANSLATOR’S NOTE 

I found Prigov accidentally. A video clip with that appealing VHS quality, in which he recited an alliterative poem at a level of Russian beyond my own. I toyed with the idea of translating him, and in the process began to appreciate his printed poetry, his art exhibitions, his enormous character. He told absurd jokes about the atrocities of Russian and American history without ever growing sentimental or ideological, a pitfall even for the best of the Russian poets. He follows in the Russian tradition of absurdism, if the absurd can be called traditional. 

Although his topics are often political, it would be a disservice to call Prigov simply a dissident—his writing is usually too arcane to be clearly read as criticism. He brings the mysticism of Soviet hero worship to the fore and makes us confront it, bends it into something closer to real forms of power. His poetry is the pure absurdist admission that life is at best a place where we dance around meaningtly encounter it. The politics of his work will never touch my pulse as closely as they might for those who knew Soviet power, but his broad sense of the absurd and of the mystical or essential nature of power is still familiar. At least I hope it is. 

Prigov was born in 1940, just before the Great Patriotic War, and died in 2007. His work was not officially printed in the Soviet Union until 1986, although it was circulated abroad and in Samizdat. This particular cycle of poems dates to 1985, one of the 36,000 that he claimed to have written before the millenium. 

The translation came easily. His language is simple and straightforward. Many of the dialogues are riffs on famous phrases by the authors with whom he speaks, and I’ve done my best to render them into simple English that would slander neither Pushkin nor Prigov. Naturally, I hope that the chaos and mystery remains.


NOTICE:
This book was born from a love for Dialogues, Poems, and—naturally, naturally—for happiness.

There is no happiness in life
But there is peace and will
There is no will in life
But there are certain inevitabilities
Nothing in life is inevitable
Save severity and humility
There is no humility in life
Save to be thankful and to rejoice
And to be thankful
And to be thankful
And to rejoice, and to rejoice, rejoice 
                 And to be thankful, to be thankful, thankful 
                                 And to rejoice.


Dialogue #1

Dostoevsky: What is happiness? 
Prigov: What is happiness? 
Dostoevsky: To take a child! 
Prigov: To take a child! 
Dostoevsky: An infant! 
Prigov: An infant! 
Dostoevsky: To take a drop of his blood! 
Prigov: A drop of blood! 
Dostoevsky: A drop of blood! 
Prigov: A droplet! 
Dostoevsky: What is a drop of blood? 
Prigov: What’s a drop of blood? 
Dostoevsky: What are you saying—blood? 
Prigov: What am I saying—blood? 
Dostoevsky: Really—blood? 
Prigov: Blood! 
Dostoevsky: What does blood mean to you? 
Prigov: What does blood mean? 
Dostoevsky: It doesn’t mean anything! 
Prigov: It doesn’t mean anything! 
Dostoevsky: That’s all, then!


There’s some flowers, and a trough 
There’s a rocking chair. There’s something buried. 
Something 
Probably a corpse— 
This is how the porch looks. 


There’s some air, and a little water 
There’s a brother. There’s a sister. 
And there the earth is folded over. 
Probably something buried 
Probably a corpse 


There’s a field, and a forest 
There’s the edge of heaven 
There’s a village, let’s just say, forgettable 
And a little closer the earth 
Is bursting out 
Where the corpse, probably, tried to climb.


There is no truth in life 
But there is understanding and reason 
There is no reason in life 
But there is logic and sobriety 
There is no sobriety in life 
But there is choice 
There is no choice in life 
Save to forgive and to rejoice 
And to rejoice, rejoice, rejoice 
And rejoice, and rejoice 
And rejoice 
And to forgive 
And to rejoice 


In life, there is no love 
But there is tenderness and friendship 
There is no friendship in life 
But there is lust and desire 
There is no desire in life 
Save to dissipate and to rejoice 
And to dissipate, and dissipate 
And to dissipate, and dissipate 
And dissipate 
And to weep! To weep, to weep! 
And weep again! And weep and weep! 
And to rejoice and rejoice and rejoice! 
And to dissipate! 


There’s the kitchen, and the bathtub 
Which kitchen? And which bathtub? 
Just a kitchen. Just a bathtub 
And what smells so strange, underneath the bathtub? 
Probably a corpse, growing stale. 


There’s a man, right fucking there, and his fucking grandmother 
There’s power, right fucking there, and fucking glory 
That’s all there fucking is 
I don’t see a fucking thing 
Except— 
A corpse, probably


Dialogue #2

Stalin: There is no happiness in life! 
Prigov: But Dostoevsky said…. 
Stalin: What did Dostoevsky say? 
Prigov: Something about an infant’s blood. 
Stalin: And what is Dostoevsky? 


Prigov: What is Dostoevsky? 
Stalin: He is ten letters! 
Prigov: Ten letters! 
Stalin: And what happens if we take one away? 
Prigov: What then? 
Stalin: Then he’s Ostoevsky! 
Prigov: Ostoevsky! 
Stalin: And what if we take another three? 
Prigov: What then? 
Stalin: Then he’s Oevsky! 
Prigov: Oevsky! 
Stalin: And what if we take another three? 
Prigov: What then? 
Stalin: Then he’s Sky! 
Prigov: Sky! 
Stalin: And another two? 
Prigov: Another two! 
Stalin: Then he’s Y! 
Prigov: Y! 
Stalin: And another? 
Prigov: Another? 
Stalin: There is nothing! 
Prigov: There is nothing! 
Stalin: There is nothing! 
Prigov: There is nothing! 
Stalin: And no droplets of blood. 


There is no glory in life 
But there are connections and acquaintances 
There are no connections in life 
But there is thirst and freedom 
There is no freedom in life 
Except to choose purely 
How purely! 
Lord! 
How pure! How pure! 
And pure! And pure! 
Lord! How pure! 
How pure! 
Lord! How pure how pure! 
How pure it is to choose 


There is no childhood in life 
But there is school and youth 
There is no youth in life 
But there is maturity and age 
There is no age in life 
But there is eternity and bliss 
Eternal bliss! 
And eternity, eternity and eternity 
And bliss, and eternity 
Eternity, eternity! 
And bliss! 


A town—no larger than a shed 
Dim and quiet as the dead 
Pale and wretched 
By snow—tormented 
All in chaos 
As Buddha crouches 
Snow begins to lay 
Like a cat watching its prey 
Attentively 



Here is the stage, the curtainous layers 
Here is the play, and here are the players 
Aristocrats— 
How lovely! 
Here’s Uncle Vanya, Ranevskaya and Lopakhin 
And the stink of something 
A corpse, probably 
(Boris Godunov’s) 

There is Pushkin, there’s Dostoevsky 
There’s Gorky, and there’s Mayakovsky 
There is Caesar, and there’s Chapaev 
And there’s Prigov—what’s he digging for? 
A corpse 
probably 
ours. 
Collectively.


Dialogue #3

Pushkin: There is no happiness in life!
Prigov: Well, what is there?
Pushkin: There is peace and will!
Prigov: What about the infant?
Pushkin: What infant?
Prigov: Just an infant!
Pushkin: He has his own will!
Prigov: And what about the drop of blood?
Pushkin: Whose blood?
Prigov: His blood!
Pushkin: It has its own will!
Prigov: And what about the dagger?
Pushkin: It has its own will!
Prigov: Then what am I to do?
Pushkin: You have your own will!
Prigov: And if I don’t want it?! I don’t, I don’t!
Pushkin: Then there is peace!
Prigov: And if I have no peace?!
Pushkin: Then that is your will!



The wind a silvered sheet
That twists and hides us
That flies along the street
And lands beside us
And bumps into me
And grows embarrassed
I look at her
And at the street
And life, like a Buddha
Of extraordinary age.

Image by Hannah Sandoz

Dialogue #4

Stalin: There is no happiness in life!
Prigov: Pushkin already said that!
Stalin: And what else did Pushkin say?
Prigov: There, there is peace and will!
Stalin: Will?
Prigov: Will!
Stalin: And just what is this Pushkin?
Prigov: What?
Stalin: He is seven letters!
Prigov: Seven letters!
Stalin: And what if we take one away?
Prigov: What then?
Stalin: Then he’s Ushkin!
Prigov: Then he’s Ushkin!
Stalin: And what if we take another?
Prigov: What then?
Stalin: Then he’s Shkin!
Prigov: Then he’s Shkin!
Stalin: And if we take another?
Prigov: Another?
Stalin: Then he’s Hkin!
Prigov: Then he’s Hkin!
Stalin: And if we take another?
Prigov: Another?
Stalin: Then he’s Kin!
Prigov: Kin!
Stalin: And another?
Prigov: Another?
Stalin: Then he’s In!
Prigov: In!
Stalin: Another!
Prigov: Another!
Stalin: He’s N!
Prigov: N! 
Stalin: And another letter?
Prigov: Another letter?
Stalin: There is nothing!
Prigov: There is nothing!
Stalin: There is nothing!
Prigov: There is nothing!
Stalin: And no will!


There is no life in the world 
But there is something like it 
There’s nothing like that in the world 
But there is something else 
There is nothing else in the world 
But there is something like that 
Like that! 
Like that! 
O! 
Lord! Yes! 
Like that like that like that like that! 
God! 
Like that! 



There is ownership, and economics 
There is efficiency, and Reaganomics 
There is the Dollar, and the Ruble 
And there, buried, is some sort of corpse 
Ownerless 


Three is glorious valor, and revelry 
And a garden that is shining 
There are grinding tanks, there, cloak and dagger 
But something is buried here— 
A corpse, probably 



This city is Moscow—the capital 
This is London, and this—Sevastopol 
This is the South, and the North 
And this is a corpse 
Still unburied 


In Life—There is no death 
Only rape and murder! 
There is no murder in life 
But there is parting and oblivion 
There is no oblivion in life 
But there is metapsychosis and memory 
Memory! Memory! Me-ee-mmory! 
Mee-mmm-oory! Memmmmory! 
And murder, and memory-memory 
Memory! 
Eternal Me-eeee-mmmory! 
Of HIM! 
AMEN! 


There is shit, there is phlegm 
There is crap, there is vomit 
There is a thick nest of filth 
But there is still a sliver of light!— 


A corpse, probably 
Here is a coffin, and a corpse 
Here is corpse, and a coffin 
Well, then what’s at the funeral? 
They’re burying everything else. 


Dialogue #5

Stalin: There is no happiness in life! 
Prigov: No happiness! 
Stalin: What is there, then? 
Prigov: What is there? 
Stalin: There is Stalin! 
Prigov: There is Stalin! 
Stalin: And what is Stalin? 
Prigov: What is he? 
Stalin: Stalin is our glory in battle! 
Prigov: Glory in battle! 
Stalin: Stalin is our fleeting youth! 
Prigov: Fleeting youth! 
Stalin: Going to war with a song, he is victorious! 
Prigov: Victorious! 
Stalin: The people are for Stalin! 
Prigov: For Stalin! 
Stalin: And what else is Stalin? 
Prigov: What else? 
Stalin: He is Three Great Principles! 
Prigov: Three Great Principles! 
Stalin: And what else is Stalin? 
Prigov: What else? 
Stalin: He is Five Great Thoughts! 
Prigov: Five Great Thoughts! 
Stalin: He is Six Great Letters! 
Prigov: And what if we take one away? 
Stalin: What then? 
Prigov: Then he’s Talin! 
Talin: Talin! 
Prigov: And if we take away another? 
Talin: Another? 
Prigov: Then he’s Alin! 
Alin: Alin! 
Prigov: And if we take away another? 
Alin: Another? 
Prigov: Then he’s Lin! 
Lin: Lin! 
Prigov: And another? 
Lin: Another? 
Prigov: Then he’s In! 
In: In! 
Prigov: And another? 
In: Another? 
Prigov: Then he’s N! 
N: N! 
Prigov: And another! 


There is nothing in life 
And that which there isn’t is already gone 
There’s none in the world 
And that which there is is already gone 
But there is still a little bit left 
Which means there’s something 
There is a little still in life 
Where means there’s something 
Good Lord! There’s something there 
There is, there is, there is! It’s there! 
God! It’s there! It is! It is! 
Lord, there’s something there! There is! 
It’s there, Lord! 
Lord, it’s there! 


Effeminate like Laura’s song 
Like laurel leaves, like Northern Lights 
But rushing, like the stream along 
The bank, or like Aurora’s light 
Her rays descending in a throng 
That rake up winter with their hands 
You see—around here, winter’s long 
So, so long. A winter. 
And winter, winter is so long 
A long winter 
With such frost enfrosted 
And such a winter, and such frost 
A long and frosty winter. 
A landscape. 

Image by Francesca Ott

Dialogue #6

Prigov: What is happiness?
Prigov: And what is happiness?
Prigov: And what is unhappiness?
Prigov: What is unhappiness?
Prigov: And what is the distinction?
Prigov: It is that when there is happiness, there is no unhappiness.
Prigov: And what is the similarity?
Prigov: It is that when there is unhappiness, there is still happiness.
Prigov: And what else is there?
Prigov: There is all the rest!
Prigov: And how does all that resemble all this?
Prigov: Because it is all essentially happy or unhappy!
Prigov: And how does it differ?
Prigov: In that all the rest flows out of this! Prigov: And where does it flow to?
Prigov: To ME!
Prigov: How’s that?
Prigov: Here it comes now!

Categories
Poetry

Diaspora

by Jacob Fidoten | Poetry | Spring 2018

Drawing by Julia Friend

like nylon on nylon a sound I have always felt deeper than the ear—shalom he said first meeting me shalom before I started shalom when I was finished shalom when hot oil anointed my forehead reverberated 

the next day an uninhibited music but still scratching internally this lousy phallus never taught me to catch a football but I still learned to fear emasculation 

there are too many people to blame in a day I like to compromise and blame myself I move through streets with the tepid entropy of cannabis burnt in the dense summer air surrounding the brittle branch posture held rigid by urge 

quickly dispersed as we collapse into briar those tangles always stiffen and the eyes gloss over in defense cover is blown by the thin line of tear salt on the glasses 

the covenant was made to burden the breaker the manna was bug shit and we still thanked god he called me weak and I thanked him on the way out 

Categories
Interlude

Not Long Ago

by JRRL | Interlude | Fall 2017

Image by Julia Friend

Brad Segro and the Great Information Virus.


ABSTRACT


In this three-part history, I propose a re-writing of how we understand the decline of our predecessors based on the remarkable findings within the recently excavated journals of Brad Segro, the progenitor of the virus that wiped out information technology in the third century Before Descendance. Selections of the thirteen volumes discovered pertain to Brad’s involvement in The Event, as it is commonly dubbed, that so dramatically changed the course of human history. Much of that information has been distilled into a coherent narrative in the first section. The second will consider the difficulties of working with Brad’s journals, and begin to juxtapose what they don’t tell us with what they do. The third and final will finish discussing the journals’ limits, and in their context propose questions to guide our research moving forward.


At the turn of the last century, there was an undergrad student named Brad Segro, who studied literature and computer science, among other things. Brad read a lot of interesting articles about so-called “deep learning” computer programs that were tackling problems of natural language processing—predicting an author based on a sample of text, for example, or translating from one written language to another. There were even some programs that could generate text or images after reading a great deal of examples.

Brad was excited by the possibilities of this technology, but he was always disappointed to read the texts produced. He saw them as poor imitations of the human art of writing and came to believe the machines generating them were far from capable of telling meaningful stories. He did a little reading and decided that since machine learning algorithms generally improve with larger samples, he could address the problem of meaningful creation by building an artificial neural network that would read every single text, ever.

That’s not exactly what he accomplished, of course. He exclusively considered texts presented in language, ignoring texts with other forms such as images or audio. Brad also limited himself to such texts as available on the internet; he figured there was enough material uploaded already and recognized that whatever small number texts he might upload individually would fail to have an impact in such a large pool. He did not exclude any languages, however, resulting in a sample of over 40 languages majorly represented.

Of course, with billions of pages and exabytes of data, Brad’s learning program toiled for weeks. In the interim, Brad’s term of studies ended. He left his computer running and went outside for a while. When he came back one day, he was surprised to find that his program had output some text. The following symbols had been printed to Brad’s terminal:

Illustration by Ramzy Lakos

Brad looked it over briefly. He was not a linguist. Even if he was, this small output would not be enough to derive meaning from the symbols. Brad adjusted the parameters and instructed the program to output some more, an amount that would have printed to nearly 100 pages. He wrote a little note explaining what it was and sent it to his university’s linguistics department.

***

At this point, the information in Brad’s journals begins to intersect with what we’ve compiled from our predecessors’ public records. Interestingly, little of what Brad documented during this period actually concerns his machine. He took quite a lot of notes—40 pages in the week following the completion of his program—but the vast majority of those concern a romantic relationship he was having at the time. When he does mention his machine, it is very much within the emotional modality in which he had been writing—he expresses curiosity as to its products, anxiety that they won’t be of value, and a rich pride engendered by the faint hope that his program would be a success. He speculates wildly as to the fame and wealth that it would bring him, even while acknowledging to himself that it was too early to tell.

What Brad did mention is that he got a little note back from the department chair right away, saying, “Thanks for the email,” and that they would take a look at it. On the same day that the Springfield Chronicler reported that the bodies of the missing linguistics department members had been found, Brad writes the final entry in the last volume of the journals:

“March 17th

Did he really not think that dude was flirting with him? Is he really that naive? Or is he just defensive because of the way I accused him?

“Entre las formas que van hacia la sierpe
[…]
dejaré crecer mis cabellos”
—FGL

“The wackness is spreading like a plague”
—Guru

The scents are maddeningly bland. I pull air from my hand and smell the sweat Its musk grows and I veer towards sanity

“n k’aba’a a’an Yack. xik kue sa’ kuakax nin chal tz’ibitz patux”, right? I return to her letters and it’s all unraveled.

if only… It isn’t nearly real enough. It’s not that simple. But maybe I will get out of town for a while”

It’s tempting to try to read some sort of meaning into these messages that could connect them to his program, which was beginning its catastrophic work even as he was writing this, but the reality is that they don’t tell us much at all. Reading this single page is representative of what it was like working with his journals as a whole—parsing masses of irrelevant personal content for slight clues, trying to calculate the truth from the probabilities of many unreliable statements. It’s possible that Brad did get out of town, which might explain why he suddenly stopped journaling, but there are many other plausible reasons for this phenomenon, and none can be ruled out without further evidence. It was only a few days later that the last issue of the Springfield Chronicler was printed, and other media organizations began reporting the destruction of Brad’s university, followed by many others. Brad does not appear again in any of these records, so we have no idea what happened to him after this date. Nor do we know the extent to which he was affected by his own creation, or if he or any of his contemporaries ever discovered his role.

If we imagine the spread of the virus across a network of institutions responsible for the production of knowledge, then most of what we know about it comes from nodes in the network just outside of the portion of the network already affected. Unfortunately, some elements of the virus spread faster than the system’s own ability to recognize it—for, as we all know, institutions of storytelling showed signs of the madness even as they reported on other institutions suffering from it. What’s so frustrating about Brad’s journals is that they’re so close to the absolute center, and might be the first documents we’ve discovered related to the virus that were unaffected by it, but they don’t show so much as an awareness that the virus existed. Their position in relation to our historical problem is a great tease, and although what we have been able to draw from them about his program is critically illuminating, they are ultimately a disappointment.

***

The monumental significance of the discovery of Brad’s notebooks is matched only by the challenge of actually making sense of it. Most importantly, we now know for sure that The Event was caused by the work of a single human being. Folklore and popular fantasy will no doubt draw great meaning from this realization. But I am a historian—we are historians—and we must resist the temptation of speculation and sensationalism. Brad’s importance is that he documented his life in a manner that survived the Great Information Destruction, and perhaps more miraculously, that the paper on which he wrote survived for over three hundred years.

Not long ago, human society reached a level of informational complexity that is daunting to conceive of. The proliferation of computers and the “Internet” that connected them enabled a vast production and sharing of knowledge, which at its onset was theoretically democratic in that almost any individual with a computer could produce information and share it with anybody. In the span of a few years, however, the sheer volume of information produced and shared made it impossible for the consumer of information to navigate it in any meaningful way. Thus arose institutions of several classes to assist the consumer in finding relevant information: one was the search engine, which directed the consumer to sites containing information it deemed useful based on a query by the user; another was the sites themselves, often maintained by the same groups of people that had controlled the distribution of printed knowledge before the computer era. These two classes worked in tandem to empower certain information and disempower the rest by its placement in highly trafficked sites.

It’s interesting to consider what we can glean about Brad’s program from his journals in the context of the informational structure he inhabited. His program read everything, including the information his society had sought to marginalize and effectively destroy. Perhaps humanity was not ready for the iterative power of the machine to deliver unto it everything it had tried to throw away. This would have fascinating implications for the nature of the relationship between dominant and oppressed literatures, implications I’m sure will be seized upon by socio-information theorists. I caution against this for now, for we can’t confirm these ideas until we better understand the mechanism by which the virus worked.

Oral tradition tells us that our ancestors destroyed everything the victims of the virus ever wrote, or even touched—we thought we’d never see the symbols until we found Brad’s journals. As far as we can tell, the small printout he kept wasn’t enough to affect us, and we assume that it didn’t affect him, so hopefully our institutions of knowledge will still be around when the next piece of the puzzle is unearthed. If not, I apologize for sharing this paper with you. Let us hope that our predecessors fully paid their debts, and that we may survive to continue the pursuit of our past and of the truth.

Categories
Visual Processes

Visual Processes: Ava Field

interviewed by Julia Friend | Visual Processes | Fall 2017

Works by Ava Field

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

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

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

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

JF: What form are your more sculptural pieces taking?

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

JF: I was admiring it on the shelf.

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

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

AF: Yeah.

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

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

JF: So it’s very sensory, too.

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

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

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

􏰉􏰊􏰊􏰉 􏰣􏰒􏰁􏰂􏰍 􏰇􏰁􏰅􏰘 􏰤􏰅􏰖􏰃 􏰒􏰇􏰊􏰊􏰉 􏰌􏰉􏰀􏰀􏰍􏰊􏰎 􏰏

Categories
Visual Processes

Visual Processes: Camille Klein

interviewed by Julia Friend | Visual Processes | Fall 2017

Works by Camille Klein

Julia Friend: So what have you been working on?

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

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

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

JF: How did you come up with that?

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

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

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

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

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

JF: So these are very narrative pieces, too?

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

JF: Trailing ideas?

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

JF: Sounds very fluid.

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

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

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