The BSR Blog

Biking Englewood: An Interview

In “Biking Englewood: An Essay on the White Gaze” from Issue IV of The Blackstone Review, Benjamin Goluboff used biking through the South Side of Chicago to investigate what white eyes see in a historically black neighborhood. In the following written interview, Goluboff explains the challenges of thinking about and discussing race in the contemporary American context.

The Blackstone Review: The essay reads in places like a difficult dialogue with the self. Did you find it challenging to write? If so, was the difficulty social, personal, political?

Benjamin Goluboff: It is difficult for me to write about race, which in this country is so tragically problematical that even the language we use to discuss it has become slippery and false. And there is a special difficulty in setting myself up—privileged white academic—as an authority on the subject. What made the essay possible was narrowing the focus to exclude everything on which I couldn’t write with authority. That left only what I saw in Englewood and what I thought about what I saw there.

BSR: From the opening scene in Maine’s Rangeley Lakes through the description of trees in Englewood, the essay is interested in tracing how the backdrop of the natural world reveals something about the human world. Besides Ruskin, whom you reference in the essay, are there other forerunners to your excursion?

Goluboff: I teach a course on American Environmental Literature and so those texts in the Thoreau tradition are never far from the front of my mind. To apply those texts uncritically in this case—Englewood as wilderness and me as rugged frontiersman—would take us into some nasty territory, and I have tried to resist the trope.

BSR: Your conclusion that the white gaze is “ignorant” problematizes the historical way in which whiteness has been made synonymous with rationality. Accordingly, do you believe there is a nonwhite gaze, and if so, is the ignorance of the white gaze matched by the knowingness of the nonwhite gaze?

Goluboff: There is very certainly a nonwhite gaze, and those occasions when a white person knows himself to be its object are revealing and uncomfortable. But for a white speaker to endow that gaze with meaning—to call it intuitive, or wise, or knowing—is to invite a noble-savage-style racist essentialism that, again, I wish to resist.

BSR: What is the white gaze’s relationship to whiteness? In other words, is whiteness reaffirmed or challenged when it cannot gaze at the thing it is not?

Goluboff: My sense is that the white gaze is always self-affirming, even when it is deployed unconsciously and directed at others just like the subject doing the gazing. But in that case, I think, the gaze focuses on class distinctions among white people. I look at working-class white people and I think, There but for the grace of God, etc. I look at the aristocrats and I think, Yeah, sure. But are they really happy? I look at my fraternity brothers in the middle class and I think, What sheep, what slaves to convention; glad I’m not that way. So yes, the white gaze is always self-affirmative, even when directed at other white people.

BSR: Given the historical malleability of racial categories, do you believe a world without the white gaze is possible?

Goluboff: I’m a terrible pessimist about this, sorry. Yes, the categories are historically malleable, but the impulse to categorize is not. I think othering the other to define yourself is a fundamental component of human nature, and if that’s another essentialist position, so be it. I talk to a lot of young people (white more than black, but some black people, too) who believe that the long American history of racial hatreds is all safely in the past—who (apparently without meaning to be funny) describe our moment as postracial. They are, of course, very wrong. I would call the belief in a postracial America a self-serving fiction if it were not so patently a dangerous one.

BSR: This essay was conceived and written prior to Donald Trump being elected president. Has the presidency of Trump and the resistance to it affected your view of the sociopolitical issues the article addresses?

Goluboff: Say this for the Trump presidency: it makes it harder to believe in that postracial America nonsense. At the same time, I want to be careful not to chime in with the “now more than ever” rhetoric that prevails on the left since the election. Of course things are worse for our country, our culture, our environment since the Trump administration came to power, and I believe that is especially true for neighborhoods like Englewood across this country. And the left is correct to feel a special urgency to resist right now. The problem with the “now more than ever” argument, however, is that like so many other forces in American culture, it promotes unhistorical thinking, presents a narrative of the present that is disassociated from an informing past. Englewood got to be Englewood, the white gaze got to be what it is through long histories of exclusion and arrogation. “Now more than ever” can distract us from those histories, and maybe there is help in knowing the histories. So I suppose this is a long and fancy way of saying that my view of the subject has not been changed by very recent history, because that subject is the product of a much older history.

BSR: Following up on your point that Englewood became Englewood through “long histories of exclusion and arrogation,” how did the research you undertook on Englewood before or after your ride inform your thoughts about the neighborhood and its residents?

Goluboff: It would be dignifying the work I did for this essay to call it research. I read in Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns. I read in Yancy’s Black Bodies, White Gazes. I read a string of entries about the South Side in the mighty Encyclopedia of Chicago (available full-text online at http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org), and I played around a bit on Google Maps. But let’s not dress this up as research; it was more like tourism. And of course, as every traveler knows, the books leave you fundamentally unprepared for the place where you arrive. The thing that surprised me most about Englewood—and this was both the germ and the point of the essay—was its opacity, its resistance to my seeing it with any true comprehension.

BSR: Your mentioning the white gaze being “deployed unconsciously” is reminiscent of the passage in the essay in which you say you were “exercising the white gaze,” which connects to your thoughts on the Trump presidency. Do you argue that the character of the white gaze changes when it is aware of its operation? Moreover, is there a social benefit to exercising the white gaze, and could exercising the white gaze result in the white gaze being exorcised?

Goluboff: I’m going to say yes and yes. Yes, the white gaze is different when it is practiced self-consciously, as all of our behaviors may be defamiliarized by self-consciousness. And maybe not exorcized, but yes, I wish to believe that by becoming more self-conscious the white gaze may be made more questioning, more reciprocal, more a basis for dialogue.

The Prevention Institute

Rain for the last week and a half though the sun threatened to burst through the thick blanket of clouds draped over the city this morning. In the end, however, it relented. Finch has been reading one of his magazines since he arrived at his cubicle forty minutes ago while I troll the web. Every now and then he lets out a sharp laugh or happily makes some comment into the air, directed at no one. He is fit though his hair is thinning, and he must be the same height as me, but he looks about twenty pounds less, so that he can pull off slim-cut jeans, a blue oxford button up, and ropers to complete the look; a real urban cowboy.

I haven’t even turned on the lamp at my cubicle yet, just the calming monochrome blue light of my monitor. I wonder if the sun will be out at my lunch break, about anything but work.

“Morning Finch,” I say not to be friendly but because I am curious how he will respond and also to disrupt him from his reading.

“Oh, hi,” he says in his polite way, sounding mildly disappointed that it is me and not someone else, Cassie perhaps, his answer carrying the accent of back East and not of the Midwest.

I am infinitely curious about him—how he came from back East, much farther than I, but we are both lackeys in our cubicles, I am chained to mine even though, yes, now that I check it, the neat grid of the schedule on my monitor doesn’t have me booked for any meetings until this afternoon. Curious now because Tanner is gone, left a week ago for graduate school. Ellen left, too, got a big freelance contract and said she hoped to leverage that into her own enterprise. Don’t ask me what exactly it is she does. I’m not sure what it is I do.

“What did you study in college, Finch?”

“History,” he answers. “You?”

“Communications Studies.” I consider this as if I hadn’t during the entire four years of my undergraduate. “And here we are,” I say.

“Here we are.” I hear the flip of the pages of his magazine.

I decide to ask Finch, who seems reasonable enough, logical. “What do you think we’re doing?”

“What do you mean?” he says.

I look around the office, the interior carefully designed to look like a boutique design firm of some kind, rafters visible in the high ceilings, the easterly wall a series of giant windows that look down upon a parking lot, a design that seems somehow personalized, private, and that offers absolute transparency. “At the Prevention Institute,” I say. “What do we do?”

“We help people is all. It’s not too complicated,” he says with a look and a shrug of the shoulders as if to say why do you have to make things complicated? Then he reminds me of his magazine. “I’m trying to finish this article before my first client—” and then his eyes widen, tracking something or someone moving, it seems, just beyond the peripheries of my vision. For a moment I am afraid to move, that it might be our boss, I almost ask him what or who it is, but his look tells me to be silent. The mysterious effluvium of unfamiliar food—a concoction of meats, perhaps, garlic and ginger, unknown spices—fills the air. I turn and see Shafiq, another employee in our division, materialize as if out of the unlit shadowy corners of the giant office floor with a lost look on his face, and I am drawn to his eyes, frightened, they seem. I am the one who should be afraid, because he has appeared before us like a ghost, without warning, and not him. Yet it is he who seems frightened, as if he is surprised to find that he might be of flesh, of this world. His tan slacks look in need of ironing as does his orange polo. His ID badge with its clear black numbers embossed beneath his headshot dangles from his belt. “When did you get here?” I ask.

Shafiq looks at his wristwatch. “I don’t know.” His voice carries the long oh sound of a Midwesterner like myself, “This morning sometime.” He turns to leave and says, “I’ve gotta go.”

I listen, wondering how I didn’t hear him before, to the swishing of the polyester and Lycra of his tan slacks, the faint click of his loafers on the lacquered hardwood as he slips back into some unknown corner of the office. Finch and I return to our morning routine as if it had not been interrupted, and forget that Shafiq was there at all. Pretty soon Finch’s first client of the morning will arrive, and I return to the monitor that bathes my thoughts in its sea-like blue gaze.

I recommended Cassie for a job here about a year ago, and I’m not sure why I did it anymore—now she is moving up the ladder while I occupy the same cubicle space that I have for the two years I have worked here. She was a friend of my ex-girlfriend, so long ago did we meet that I forget how we met. It seems she was just one day a part of my life, fully matriculated and with knowledge of my personal details that only childhood friends of mine had.

I had only a passing interest in her when I was with my girlfriend, I barely noticed her brown hair and matching eyes, the way she wore black, thick-rimmed glasses and pencil skirts that hugged her curvy hips, a white button up that revealed her pale neck, her delicate clavicle. Some days in the cool, lime green-colored office, she appeared to me like she could be librarian, wound up and repressed, waiting to be debauched. Well, this became my fantasy at least, and maybe if I think about it long enough, this is why I recommended her for the job and not because she needed it and because she was a friend of my girlfriend who moved out not long ago. Yes, I tell myself it was the Cassie with a boyfriend named Arjun who needed a break to help them get firmly landed on their feet. She spoke of him so often that I told myself this was the person I recommended for the job, Cassie who was in a relationship. It wasn’t the Cassie of slim waistline and curvy hips, pale neck and delicate clavicle for whom I repressed my desire. But in order to do so, I had to make myself available to discuss her boyfriend, Arjun. I even talked about my girlfriend as we were breaking up.

“He’s super mechanical,” she said once.

“He’s an artist, right?”

“Yeah. He just finished his degree.”

“What kind of art?”

“Oh,” she began almost with a disappointed sigh as if she should know, exactly, what he did, but she didn’t. “Big things. Installations, like, stuff.”

“Interesting,” I said.

“Except it’s the kind of stuff that will never get picked up anywhere.”

“Why?”

“It’s all too big for small galleries, and he doesn’t have a big enough name to merit the space it would take for a big gallery.”

“That’s a problem,” I said. “You guys could throw a party in your place, feature his art. Get people to see it that way.”

“Yeah,” she said, again, with disappointment or without ambition or excitement. “Except I’d have to organize it. Arjun doesn’t plan things.”

I thought about what I would say. I didn’t want to bad mouth her boyfriend, but the peculiarities of his art and personality were already getting on my nerves and I had never even met him. She talked of him like he was a piece of art himself, like someone at a museum staring at the complexities and mysteries of painting or a sculpture, trying to wrap her mind around him, always at arm’s length and making leaps in judgment to explain the unexplainable. And, as she talked, I realized that I wished that she looked at me in the same way.

 

Ever since I broke up with my girlfriend the days and weeks all get broken up by the commute under the bay, back and forth. I live alone in a gated community next to the waterfront in Oakland, and I don’t have any intention of moving. Our place was advertised as a loft back then, but when my girlfriend and I went to look at it, we realized it wasn’t. It was quiet and carpeted, anechoic like a recording studio, with a dishwasher in the well-lit, almost yellowish modern kitchen, a small closet with a washer and dryer stacked neatly behind its door. It had its own balcony that could be reached from the bedroom, and overlooked the parking lot and I didn’t think it was worth it to shell out a few hundred more bucks to have one that overlooked the neatly manicured lawn that surrounded the heated pool: Always eighty degrees, the guy who had showed us the apartment had said confidently. He also pointed out the small exercise room with a StairMaster and an elliptical. Free weights rested heavily in a rack in front of a full-length mirror. My girlfriend seemed happy and I was slowly warming up to the feeling that, if I planned groceries accordingly, I might be able to spend entire weekends on the grounds of our complex without once venturing out into the East Bay or back into the city itself. Not only that, but the grocery store could be reached quickly by a shuttle that stopped right outside the gates, and that same shuttle could take me to and from the train each morning so that I could tunnel under the bay in the neat, compact if hot car with other workers making the same commute, so that, no, my girlfriend and I did not even need a car. There was, however, a reserved parking space in case we should get one, our friendly attendant reminded us before we wrote the check for our deposit and he prepared the lease.

 

Ellen came some time shortly after my second year, left not long after she started, and I learned that she had been lining up another gig before she had even taken her position in the office. I remember her telling me, “It’s only a matter of time.”

I didn’t really believe her, mainly because I found the prospect of my own moving on, my own leaving for another gig unimaginable. I had given up on it. During my first year at the PI, I often considered quitting, and so destabilizing and frightening did it seem, and then so comfortable did my life in the gated community become, the cubicle each day didn’t bother me so much. The occasional walk on my lunch break down to the Embarcadero seemed like enough. I looked at the giant gray Bay Bridge arcing across the water, an inverted parabola leading to the massive cranes lined up along the Port of Oakland and, behind them, the Oakland skyline all blanketed in a gentle haze even on the clear days, and I was comforted. Before and even after my girlfriend left, it made me feel safe to know that she was somewhere over there, not far if I needed her.

I remember now that it was because of Ellen that I started paying attention to the protests. At first they were so polite that they barely caught my attention. Once, while we went for coffee down the street from our office on a short fifteen-minute break, she told me about her boyfriend who was not only active in the protests, but an aspiring filmmaker shooting his first documentary, the subject which was to be the activists that erupted politely now and then in Oakland and San Francisco.

“He used to be in a band.”

“Really?” I said.

“Yeah,” she began. “They toured the East Coast for a while last year.” She smiled to herself.

“Sounds like fun.” I had never really gone out East, and I had no desire to visit either.

She smiled, not looking anything in particular.

“What is it?” I asked.

“No it’s nothing,” she said. She paused, reconsidering, and then began talking again. “He worked at a co-op grocery store and they didn’t even know he was gone while he went on tour. He had a friend who clocked him in and out three times a week, picked up his paychecks, and deposited them into an account.”

“Huh,” I said, looking down, suddenly aware of how my shoes pinched my feet uncomfortably. I instantly hated Ellen’s boyfriend after she said this and perhaps she felt my discomfort with her, although I’m not sure how she would have known. Now I looked up the long and wide avenue that terminated against the Bay. I thought considerably less of her, and if I had been interested before about what she would do when she left the job, I didn’t want to know now. I imagined myself drifting alone out on the water, beneath the arcing gray bridge, now riding a current and being swept out to sea. We walked in silence for the next block and a half and I maintained my dream of drifting out to sea, a dream of uselessness, an existence without all the things I had now that were essential to life. I dreamed of becoming lost and of losing myself, of becoming totally, uncompromisingly useless.

On our way back up to the office, a to-go cup filled to the brim with black coffee warming my hand, I picked up the conversation exactly where I had left off as if no time had passed and I had not missed a beat.

“And so now he protests?”

“Yeah,” she said proudly as if she was talking about herself. “He’s really active.”

“So what does he do?” Now I was just looking for more ways to hate him and her for not seeing through such a charade.

“He interviews people, records them, and puts them on a website for people to see…” She continued on about how he came out here from the suburbs of Chicago, but how this linked up to what he was doing now, I wasn’t sure. I had completely written him off at that point as a spoiled rich kid who had probably spent his teenage years in a private school.

I tried to direct that hatred at him but I couldn’t. That hatred went inward. I hated myself for not having what he did, everything, not the least of which was a private education and now leisure time to record protests for his breakout film and a cushion to fall back upon if everything fell apart. I had no cushion that would protect me against debt and student loans, against being fired if I didn’t work enough, against missing rent or groceries.

“—and so when he gets back, we’re going to travel down the coast for a week,” was the last thing she said before we reached the giant glass doors of our office building.        

I wanted to yell at her and I wanted to run away and then I thought about my blue monitor, the potential to help some poor long-suffering client. Then I remembered today was payday and I thought about money. I would be able to deposit money into my savings account, to cushion myself against the eventualities of life, and I became sanguine once again, sipping at my steaming coffee that would warm me through the afternoon and until I returned safely to the other side of the Bay.

“Well, have a good afternoon,” I said to Ellen before returning to my desk.

         

After I had finished my client preparedness training, and had been taken off probationary status—something that had made me feel suspect and I said this to Janelle, a great, Nordic-looking woman with blue eyes and blonde, curly hair with half a foot on me in height, large breasts that I tried not to look at. She was my boss during probationary status, but assured me that all new hires were given this status and I felt assured when she smiled her clean, white-toothed smile and in her navy slacks and matching sports coat like any power suit except that she wore sharp heels that raised her hind quarters and slimmed her figure, and looked to me like they could easily puncture a hole in my neck.

This was when I began to notice Tanner peeking over his monitor to catch a glimpse of me and so that I could catch a glimpse of him until one day we introduced ourselves. Like Cassie, he wore thick, black-rimmed glasses. Everything else about Tanner’s clothing, his accessories—the iPhone, the paper-thin laptop that he faithfully brought with him each day in a beautiful, Italian leather satchel that looked vintage but had been specially designed for holding contemporary technological accessories that everyone carried—seemed to fit squarely into the twenty-first century, the slacks, the button up, ironed and collared shirt. I thought of slick modernity with its austere and minimal living quarters, the orderly interior design. At bottom though, it seemed to me, it upheld the same old-school conservatism that reeked of stuffy rooms and floral-patterned wall paper, dark rooms overflowing with collectibles from the Orient, burgundy-colored rugs from India, some strange amalgamation of the clash and final acceptance of the values that separated our parents’ generation, the baby boomers, and ours. These were the hidden values that activists like Ellen’s boyfriend were protesting against. In any case, he seemed like a hard worker, like he took our job seriously. I thought he was a nice guy after I got to know him, and eventually we talked about sports to pass the time between clients. Probationary status flew by.

Well, sure enough not long ago, we were walking to the train and Tanner told me: “I’m going back to school. In the Midwest.”

“That’s great,” I said quickly, though as we walked up Montgomery to the train and as I had time to think about what this would mean, I felt my heart sink from my chest. It was tied to my girlfriend leaving, Ellen’s moving on, and now Tanner’s announcement, to Cassie taking a new position just above the one I had helped her secure, the protests that sparked quietly now and again. After they shut down the Port of Oakland, the authorities unleashed the helicopters. I got the feeling that they hovered to chip away slowly at the morale of the entire city, to breed hostility between those who protested and those of us who didn’t. I heard people complain how these were our tax dollars hard at work. They began to ask what the protesters wanted.

“Yeah,” he said. “It’s about that time.”

“What will you study?”

“Well,” he said, “I’m not sure exactly. Something dealing with cognition and rhetoric, I’m trying to pin down a moment in cognition when things take shape, organization, arguments…” He trailed off.

“Sounds way beyond me,” I said. “So what will you do with it?”

“I want to teach high school English.”

I tried to remember high school, but couldn’t. It was like running up against a void. Instead I thought about our office erased of recognizable faces, and I began to feel sorry for myself. I imagined me sitting at my cubicle quietly waiting for my appointments to come. I wished that I could go back to school, to be at that carefree stage of life that Ellen’s boyfriend found himself in, or Tanner for that matter, without the hot breath from the debt of student loans, the high rent I paid to live in the comfortable townhome fortress I occupied now without my girlfriend. I rubbed my temples, then my eyes.

“Are you okay?” Tanner asked me.

“Oh, yeah,” I said after another moment. “Just thinking about what I’m going to make for dinner when I get home.

“Ah, okay. You looked worried for a minute.”

“Dinner can be worrisome.”

“I suppose.”

We arrived to the platforms where I would catch my train under the bay and he would take his further into the neighborhoods of the city. “So, listen,” I began. “We should check out a baseball game before you take off.”

“That’s a good idea.”

We shook hands heartily and I said, “I’ll look into it and let you know.”

“Sounds good.”

We parted ways and my train was already pulling up as I got into line. The doors rattled open and a small wave of passengers sloshed out, then we funneled in.

 

The once-polite mob that had been collecting itself in front of government buildings in downtown Oakland—they had renamed the plaza, their camp, out in front of the mayoral office after a young man who had been gunned down on BART New Year's Eve two years ago—had grown in its rebellion. I heard stories of revolutionary artists, factions breaking off from the protesters, no doubt, that's what they called themselves, going to different shop fronts throughout East and West Oakland, door-to-door style, offering their services in exchange for a small fee: one grand for a mural and protection from would-be taggers that would vandalize their property. Protection wasn't 100 percent guaranteed though; the murals might not be a deterrent against rogue taggers, but it was better than the alternative, which was to have one's store repeatedly vandalized by bombers, they called them, and incur fines from the city. I heard that the muralists, the revolutionary artists as they called themselves, came from all over, New Mexico, Minnesota. They came from places in the middle of the country, like myself, where nothing of consequence ever happened, or so they thought. That's what I thought when I came here with my girlfriend six years ago.

 

Toward the end of it all with my girlfriend, it all started with Cassie at a party at a loft in Oakland’s Chinatown, right above a Vietnamese restaurant, and where the faint odor of pho wafted in and out of my nose between sips of lager and where people, including my girlfriend, gathered around a single turntable and speakers in the cleared out living room, a heavy beat thumping away. I was in the kitchen talking with Cassie about work and nothing else, nothing else because my life was nothing but work. At the time, she was a barista at a café.

“I’m so sick of it.” She had a drink from her beer; I noticed her lips delicately touch the mouth of the glass bottle, glistening, “Of making lattes and foam and assholes that don’t tip.”

I told myself this was her way of asking for help without asking for help, that I was giving her help, and in my loneliness, and thinking about the solitary blue light on my computer monitor, simultaneously cool and warm on my skin, and perhaps foreseeing the immanent departure of my girlfriend, I offered her my help. “I could put you in touch with someone where I work, Janelle.”

“Really?” she said, the register in her tone had changed already, the muscles in her face had relaxed, happily, into a hopeful smile.

“Yeah,” I said with more confidence. “It’s no problem. You should definitely talk with Janelle. Mention my name, that you have experience with people.”

She had already taken out a pen and slip of scrap paper, so quickly, in fact, that I wondered where they had come from. “What’s her name again?” she asked.

“Janelle,” I said, smiling. “Here.” I reached out for the pen and scrap paper. I wrote down Janelle’s email address and gave the pen and paper back to Cassie, told her to send an email first thing Monday.

“I really appreciate it,” Cassie said. “Thanks.”

She bit her lower lip, and I thought for a moment she was going to give me a hug and I became tense at the thought, but she didn’t. Two weeks later Cassie was in cubicle three.

 

And so the time at my cubicle, number four, passed by effortlessly and quickly, it seemed, with Cassie nearby to make conversation. Even if we didn’t talk, I liked having one more person that I knew there. Sometimes I watched her stretch her neck, rubbing the nape with her palm. And when we weren’t providing consultation to our clients, it seemed we were giving it to each other, comforting and bracing ourselves for an uncertain future, validating our histories, because what is a personal history if no one can confirm it with you? Yes, we decided that we were exactly where we needed to be even if we were not sure, exactly, where that was, and things would be great and if not great, acceptable.

 

Now and then I notice Shafiq shuffling around down the corridor near the supplies room, slacks and a polo, almost same as always—some days more well-ironed than others. I could not tell if he was eyeing me, or if he was eyeing Cassie.

And then, one late afternoon, Cassie asks: “Who is that?”

“You don’t know Shafiq?” I respond. She’s been here long enough that she should, but I understand why she doesn’t. Most people in the office don’t mention Shafiq and avoid eye contact if they ever run into him. “He’s been here since I got here. Doesn’t say much.”

Cassie lowers her voice to a sharp whisper so that only I can hear. “He seems a little, you know, not all together. I feel like he’s watching me. Does he speak English?”

I laugh. “He’s from not far from where I grew up. You can hear his accent.”            

“Ohhh,” she says.

I do not also say that his aimless wandering around the office all day, his seeming to be here before I arrive, and still here when I leave, spooks me in the least. I feel relieved that I’m not the only person to have seen him and, so close I have come to him and his strange and somehow foreign scent, I know that he is not foreign, that he comes from where I came, assaults my nose. “I don’t think he’s watching you,” I say. “He’s a really decent guy. Just quiet.”

 

Sometimes clients came in with letters, hopeless messages scrawled in handwriting and, if I was lucky, other times a printed document that nonetheless tied my brain in painful knots and that made me want to cry at the same time: My parents divorced when I was ten and I don’t think anyone has ever loved me. Or the grammar was so hideous, a message so bereft of the fundamental rules of the English language that I could not relate in any way: I exciting at future, are made me relaxing and therefore he were some dementia wife and freaky son. When I received things like this I excused myself, the client’s face hopeful that he could be helped, and I went to Janelle, whose open cubicle faced ours even though I had been at the Institute for over a year.

“What do I do with this?”

Janelle does not say anything, but nods to the white, dry erase board where the closest thing to our mission is inscribed in capital letters green, red, blue, and dry: DO NO HARM.

“And be polite,” Janelle says.

I return to my cubicle desperate to help, to communicate. I fill out a proof of visit form for the client to take with him, a litany of vague and general terms that we worked on: syntax, organization, clarification—yes I want to help our clients, to make our systems work for them, to send them out of the office into the afternoon with a shard of hope that they can carry throughout the day like a talisman. And yet I am so aware of my inability to do so that I become clipped, jagged, sharp, and often send the client away in a sullen huff, never to ask to see me again, but perhaps I will see them, a week later, slipping into Cassie’s cubicle or to Finch’s for consultation. And I think that perhaps this is why I remain in the same place after two years on the job. I expressly don’t do what Janelle trained us to do in our client preparedness training (sessions in which definitions and nuances of words like empathy and sympathy, conversation and confrontation, are dragged forth and beaten unremittingly to death with the help of handout after handout, PowerPoint presentation after PowerPoint presentation faculty development personnel after faculty development personnel)—to recognize that we cannot possibly help the clients with all of the problems that plague them, to assuage their grievances, to keep them at arm’s length, and send them on their way thinking they have been helped, and above all, we must do no harm.

 

It still rains now, the first Friday of the new month of May, a warming rain. For a moment this morning I saw a sublime crack in the thick quilt of clouds draped above the city before our train glissaded cleanly into the gaping mouth of the tunnel, into the dark crossing beneath the bay. Even if it is small, the blue opening so deep blue, so penetrating and beautiful sky blue, it tugs at the strings that hold my heart in its place and give it hope. I take my time arriving to the office, stopping for a coffee, a pastry and drink and eat them in the window of a café while I watch the waves of workers walk to and fro past me like a cinema. I am later than usual to the office, and the floor is buzzing. Finch and Cassie, I notice are talking loudly about plans for the weekend with another guy who sits in cubicle five, Owen, a jolly Iowan with a blonde beard that matches his blonde hair and who celebrates each weekend drinking and socializing, music and so and so, the art crawl of the first Friday would be just the place for all of us to meet up.

“Will Arjun come along?” I ask Cassie, half expecting to meet her boyfriend of whom she speaks with me so often.

Finch smiles as if laughing at a joke that he has missed, “Who’s Arjun?”

I want to speak up, but Cassie stops me, explaining. “My roommate. You know Arjun.”

“Ah, right,” Finch says, rolling back on the heels of his ropers.

Cassie turns to me. “No, he can’t make it tonight. He works at the restaurant.”

I nod, but keep my mouth shut, only half aware of what is happening and I think of the slogan happily written across the dry erase board, DO NO HARM, and my heart, so big and full this morning when I saw the shafts of light falling effortlessly through the break in the clouds, felt like it was shrinking, dropping into my stomach.

“You should come out Finch,” Cassie says. And to me next: “You too. It will be fun.”

I am about to say I’ll think about it when I notice a flickering of movement out of the corner of my eye, near the back of the office and realize that it is Shafiq orbiting closer and closer to our ring. He looks at me in a knowing, expectant way and I wonder if he has heard our conversation. “Hi Shafiq,” I say, clearing my throat nervously.

He stops his drift and moves in on the group: Finch, Cassie, and Owen all turn and stare.

“Hi,” he says.

Before searching Cassie and Finch’s face for their approval I say, “Tonight’s the art crawl. You should come.”

He looks at me like I’m some kind of trap, like I might spring on him at any moment.

“Join us, Shafiq,” Cassie adds. “We never see you.”

Finch rolls his eyes and Owen doesn’t seem to care one way or the other and finally Shafiq speaks up, “I’ll think about it.” He wanders off in his aimless way, and it seems like a cloud has lifted after he is beyond earshot.

“What the fuck was that, Greg?” Finch hisses at me.

“Yeah,” Cassie says.

“He probably heard us making plans. It would have been rude not to invite him.”

“He probably won’t come anyway,” Cassie says, returning to her desk.

She smiles at me and I smile back and now I begin to wonder about the last few times I’ve seen Cassie and Finch talking with each other in their cubicles, the brush of a hand on a shoulder, the quiet laughter, all these things appear before me, simultaneously, it seems, and I am hoping that my feeling about them is not true, but it is the feeling I had before my girlfriend left, and now my heart has shrunk completely, dropped into the pit of my stomach and now the sensation hits my groin not unpleasantly, and I am reminded of my girlfriend and I wish that she had not left.

 

That night when I’m back home from work, inside the almost anechoic living room of my apartment, munching an apple and watching sports news, when my phone begins vibrating and a number appears on the face that I don’t recognize. I let it ring and then, for some reason, decide to pick up before the voice mail kicks in.

“Hello?”

It is Finch calling to invite me out tonight, the first Friday art crawl. I’d almost forgotten about it and was peeved to have been reminded.

“Cassie said I should call,” he says, and “The more the merrier, as they say!”

I laugh nervously at this and feel my stomach knotting up. This is the first time he’s asked me out to do something since I’ve met him. I say maybe and Finch says he hopes to see me there and we hang up. I turn off the television and check box scores and stats until, as planned, I begin to feel drowsy (I hope that I can fall asleep without eating dinner so that I don’t have to think about making anything until cereal in the morning for breakfast) and am interrupted by the persistent vibrating of my phone and so I look and see that it is Cassie, and so I answer.

“You should come,” she says. “Finch just broke up with his girlfriend and he needs support.”

“I didn’t know he had one.”

“I thought everyone knew. Just come.”

I am looking out my window now, opened to let the air in off of the waterfront, the quilt of clouds thinning, and think that it will be beautiful out tonight and don’t be a wet towel or something to that effect and I don’t really want to go pretend to look at art and eat organic grass-fed polish sausage at nine bucks a pop. “Fine,” I say, “I’ll be there in a while.”

And I gather my jacket and prepare to leave my apartment, the surrounding gates, that not unpleasant feeling in my groin goading me, it seems, almost against my will and out to the shuttle and before I know it I am among the throng of Friday night revelers, cans of beer in hand, the sweet aroma of pot and of savory cooked meat saturating the air, lovers arm in arm and youths and artists and there, where they said they would be are Finch and Cassie and nobody else from the office. We walk around and it’s not like we’re actually hanging out, rather we are taking turns following each other through thick patches of people, and finally I stop and buy the polish sausage (grass fed, organic) I was thinking about and a soda. I sit on the curb and eat my food.

“Finch and I are going to find beer,” Cassie says, taking my moment’s rest as her cue, it seems.

“I’ll be here,” I say, swallowing the savory and sweet sausage, licking the grease from my lips and teeth, and I watch their backs as they go. The sausage and sugar from the soda couple nicely with each other, creating in me the warm feeling of sedation and I sit and stare, without realizing it, at the sky that has opened up pink and violet, the soft and hazy wisps of clouds. I am not sure how long I’ve been on the curb when I notice Finch and Cassie returning with giant bottles of beer wrapped in brown paper bags, laughing about something or another and stop before me.

“How was your food?” Finch asks.

“It was great,” I say and stand up. “Shall we walk?”

“Sure,” Cassie says happily and we join, again, the phalanx of people and I notice we are moving in stride and toward the rhythm of what sounds like a drum circle and we reach Broadway and look at a crowd of protesters holding giant signs and waving at us, the onlookers, as they go by like a parade. The helicopters haven’t come out, but it’s early yet.

“What do you think of the protests?” Cassie asks me.

“Oh, I don’t know.” I look at Finch for the right thing to say next. Nothing. “I guess I’ve found it kind of annoying to the rest of us.”

“Ha!” Finch says. “Like who?”

“Us,” I said. “People like you and me and Cassie that don’t have a choice but to work.”

“I don’t mind,” Cassie says.

“Me neither,” says Finch.

Great, I think to myself. Just one more thing they have in common. I double down anyway. “Like who can afford to just pitch a tent downtown and skip out on work?”

Cassie looks at me as if I have said something deeply offensive.

I’m speechless.

“They’re doing it for you, you know,” Finch says.

“I don’t know, man. It just seems like a bunch of spoiled rich kids from out of town who don’t want to hold real jobs and don’t have anything better to do.”

“Huh,” he says.

I’m watching the protesters now, their picket signs bobbing up and down.

“And the fucking helicopters. I didn’t get to sleep the other night until after one in the morning.” When I turn to look for Finch and Cassie they have disappeared. It seems like no sooner have I said this that I feel myself being swept up by the protesters, the feeling in my groin that has been bothering me all night has turned into something else, something with purpose. I try to wonder what my life would be like without my job, but it is unimaginable.

I look across Broadway, and I notice Cassie and Finch once more, holding their brown paper bags with bottles of beer, before they disappear finally and for the evening so that I know and don’t know what has happened here and for some reason am feeling sorry for Arjun—the last of him I heard was that he needed to get out of the service industry and into a real job, I suppose, like the rest of us, like Finch especially who would be moving into another full-time job with benefits at the end of the month. He could do something mechanical or carpentry so that he could use his hands and not so much his disorganized mind and that was where the last discussion of Arjun was left and I somehow felt like I was getting a behind-the-scenes look at my own break up with my own girlfriend, now over a year ago so that I knew and did not know. I didn’t, however, feel sorry enough for Arjun that I wouldn’t have slept with Cassie had the opportunity presented itself. The chant of the protesters rises, but I can’t make out what they say. I would have fucked her the first opportunity I had in one of the darkened and unused rooms of our office building if only she had asked, if only she had made the slightest gesture in the right direction I would have, if only.

It was after Finch and Cassie had disappeared that I notice him, some strange dark angel roving the frayed edges of the crowds of people, Shafiq. Our eyes meet unmistakably and as he came to me his face was sullen, downcast.

“What’s your problem?” I ask.

“Nothing,” he says, his voice upbeat in a way that didn’t match his visage. “Just checking out the scene down here.”

“Pretty wild, right?” I say absentmindedly, scanning the crowd for Finch and Cassie, searching for them.

“Is everything okay? You seem edgy.”

Struck by his sudden interest in me, I stopped looking for them. “Me?” I shout over the drums. I thought about this. “No!” I say and then something inside breaks open, a stream of language flows from my lips like shit or vomit or both—“Cassie’s probably fucking Finch I just know it and they dragged me out here so that she doesn’t have to feel bad being on a date behind her boyfriend’s back and now they ditched me and I don’t care because I’m going home and and don’t they realize I’ve got better things to do?”

“Cassie’s fucking Finch?” Shafiq asks me as if he’d heard nothing else.

"What? Oh I don’t know,” I said. “Sorry,” I say. “You can ignore all that.”

“Bullshit?” he asks

“Yeah, I guess. I’m going this way,” I say. “You want to come?”

“Why not,” he says.

And so I was walking back to my apartment, Shafiq trailing behind me like a wraith, and fully aware now and unable to deny my fantasy of Cassie in the office, her delicate clavicle protruding just noticeably from the base of her pale, white neck, and following a back street when I come upon a darkened gallery that was lit by a single black light at the front door, and for some reason that I don’t understand, I decide to slip in to have a look.

“You want to have a look around in here Shafiq?”

“Why not.”

I go in first. The violet walls are lined with framed paintings of monsters, demons, and unmentionable things standing in front of nightmarish hellscapes. Others are rendered before nothing at all, just a white, antiseptic background and casting small, circular shadows directly beneath them as though the ghoul were standing beneath the spotlight of an operating theater or within the confines of an insane asylum. I had completely forgotten my desire to ravage Cassie and had completely imagined myself into the mythological world that the artist, Partie, had created—one a man in a business suit, a quarterback’s build, frank forehead but eye sockets sewn shut, and two streams of blackened blood like tears dried down each cheek. Yes, this Partie had imagined himself to be a hunter of nightmares, a doctor of the terrifying, exorcised and recorded from around the world then rendered them exactly, with painstaking detail and accuracy, grotesque and horrific as they were, chewing bones and raw meat, one a madman holding a child’s doll, all fang or eyeballs protruding horrifically from some strange and unknown sockets with the whiteness of madness, or some outsized cyst, a massive exposed cerebellum, and I think of, I suppose, the world gone mad with logic and reason, the poor and suffering thing made only to think and to compute and not ever to feel with the heart or, for that matter, the liver—only a brain. I stroll slowly through the gallery, breathing in each painting, and then I walk back out past the black light and into the lukewarm evening. I have completely forgotten about Shafiq, and when I look for him, he is gone. My thoughts return to Cassie and Finch, the not unpleasant feeling guiding me back to my apartment on the waterfront until I am back home and beneath the comforter of the queen-sized bed that I had purchased for my girlfriend and I and where I fall into a pitch-black and dreamless sleep.

 

Not long before Tanner leaves, I ask him about going to a baseball game like I had mentioned when he told me he would be leaving the Prevention Institute. He says that he’d like to go but on the night of the game he calls me and adds that his girlfriend, Dana, would come, that I should head to the Coliseum and wait for him to text me.

“You have a girlfriend?”

“Yeah,” he says “I thought you knew.”

“No, but that’s great. Is she going with you when you leave?”

“Yeah,” he says.

I smile thinking of my own girlfriend. “That’s really cool. Congratulations,” I said as if he had announced that they were getting engaged. After I’ve hung up I wonder why I never hoisted up anchor, or cut it altogether, and left California or the country altogether. Now and then at work or on the weekends I look at the travel section of the news, the pictorials that depict exotic islands, countries that seem to have been forgotten by modernity, or at least that is what we are made to believe, and I imagine myself there. Once, my girlfriend and I went to Tulum for a week and stayed in a hut a stone’s throw from the emerald Caribbean. If I don’t think too much about it, I can tell myself it was perfect, that there could be no other way to pass one’s days. We lay out on towels in the afternoons, drank Mexican beer with fresh lime, ate ceviche when we became hungry, and cooled ourselves off in the sea when we became too hot. After the sun had sunk below the watery horizon, we made love by candlelight and safely inside the mosquito net hanging from a hook in the ceiling. Each morning, after breakfast, we came back to our hut to find the bed made, fresh towels folded in the likeness of swans or hearts, and set gently at the foot of the bed. However, if I remember more closely, the sheen fades, pulled up easily like an old tapestry, and I remember the sense of panic with which I strolled the beaches and laid in bed at night (after we made love) in darkness lit only by the moonlight falling benevolently from its perch in the sky and its reflections off the gently rolling sea, the rhythm of the waves that lapped the sandy shore like a soft tongue. It all had the combined effect of merely reminding me that beyond all this was my real life, the mechanical BART and air-conditioned offices and waiting rooms, the blue, blue monitor waiting patiently at my desk for me, or for someone new to take my place.

           

At the Coliseum I buy the cheapest ticket I can find and am seated in the first row of the second deck, not bad, I think, considering they are playing the former world champions, a team stacked to the hilt with talent, well paid for, of course with only five players in a twelve-man roster earning under a million dollars per season. I arrive in the bottom of the first, climb up the cement stairs and catch my first glimpse of the field this year: it is neat, orderly and green, the turf crisscrossed with sharp lines from the freshly mowed grass, a beautiful display of symmetry and geometry, the diamond-shaped field, the clean, white and square bases like buttons, and the away team plays catch, and shags balls before the leadoff batter. My eyes are drawn as if to a vortex to the circular giant, brown pitcher’s mound that rises ten inches above the playing field with its white rubber plate like a plinth, and standing atop of it, the pitcher, a Dominican mountain of a man, standing six-feet-seven inches and weighing two-hundred ninety pounds (so I figure, with his arm fully extended at the apex of his windup, he slings the ball downward from a vantage point of nearly fifteen feet) hurling the white baseball like a white star and to my eyes nothing but a blurry white vector that disappears the moment it reaches the warm-up catcher’s mitt. A good second later the sharp snap of it can be heard in the upper deck. Finally the lead off batter steps into the box and he seemed half the size of the man on the pitcher’s mound, and the contest begins.

The game is scoreless until the seventh inning, a duel, and surprisingly our pitcher holds his own, with only one score at the top of the fifth with one out and runners at the corners and which ends abruptly on a double play, the ball slapped sharply to the third baseman and quickly converted into two outs. I barely even notice that it’s not until the seventh inning when Tanner and his girlfriend catch up with me. They amble toward me with plastic cups of beer in their hands, sit down in two empty seats next to me.

“This is my girlfriend, Dana,” he says to me, and I reached my hand out to her.

“Nice to meet you.”

She smiles back. “Hi.” She’s wearing giant sunglasses and a baseball hat.

So, it’s the top of the seventh, and our pitcher is still throwing strong. He is another Dominican except that he stands at five eleven and weighs in at two sixty-seven. The force and strength that seem more evenly distributed throughout their pitcher was all centered in our pitcher’s gut. It doesn’t really matter, I think. He is still singing. The leadoff pitch comes streaming down the pipe and leaves their batter frozen for a strike. The second down and away just enough for the batter to lay off.

“Did you hear about Finch?” Tanner asks.

“That he’s leaving? Yeah, someone told me last week.” This wasn’t true. I had been eavesdropping on him and Cassie talking in the office one afternoon before the art crawl when she should have been talking with me.

“Well, yes, but also about him and Cassie?”

The next pitch thumps into the catcher’s mitt, a ball so far off the mark that the batter leans away from it to stretch his back as he sees it coming down.

“I hadn’t heard.”

He leaned in close to me as if he was letting me in on a big secret, and so that I can smell the beer on his breathe. “You can’t tell anyone.”

“Finch is leaving anyway,” I say. “Besides, who would I tell? Shafiq?”

“Haha! Right,” he says and then became serious. “Yeah, there’s always Shafiq.”

Another ball floats across the plate and someone behind us boos and I can’t tell if he is booing the call or the pitcher or the whole game.

“I wouldn’t want Cassie to get in trouble or whatever.”

The catcher scoops the final pitch out of the dirt, and there goes the leadoff batter trotting down the first base line. I look at Tanner for his response but he has turned to Dana and put his hand on her thigh. She smiles at something he says, her sunglasses were big and black and round so that they covered much of her face and leave me with the impression that she wasn’t really smiling at all but something else I couldn’t tell. Her teeth are clean and white. I turn back to the game, acting like I don’t care because I didn’t care. It all feels so adolescent to me and now I am getting angry in the same way I was at the art crawl, at being embroiled in something that I did not want to be part of: the bullshit office romance and gossip. And, yes, I had wanted Cassie. I can admit that to myself now.

The next batter, the bottom of their lineup, hadn’t touched the ball all night, not even to foul it out of play but this time he dribbles the first pitch up the middle so that the shortstop catches up to it in shallow center without enough time to make a play, denying the double play which I’d been hoping for.

Tanner keeps talking, “I guess it’s not a big deal. Last weekend, after the art crawl, they ended up back at Finch’s in the city.”

I feel a lead ball drop from my throat to my stomach. They have reached the top of the lineup: a terrifying stretch of superstars, each paid more than the last, it seemed, and none of them measuring under six feet. From here and with their helmets they remind me of old World War II infantrymen. And they spray the ball all over the infield and outfield like a machine gun, each of the next four hitters finding the holes in the field where the defense was not. And now I wish I had not met up with Tanner and his girlfriend who, at this point, is nowhere to be seen, off getting a beer or a hot dog somewhere.

“And so what?” I ask, irritated.

The bases are loaded and the number five batter is up, another monster of a man I have never heard of or seen before and holding his bat like a club loosely above his head. I check my game roster, but can’t find him on it. We put in a new pitcher, an American this time, six three and two-hundred pounds with an arm like a sling shot that shot the ball screaming into the catcher’s mitt. I hope that we might get out of this inning without giving up more than a couple runs and can surely bounce back. The DH watches the first two pitches, strikes both of them. The crowd cheers.

“They got together, man,” he yells. “What do you think?”

The DH chooses the next pitch and launches it with a crack deep into center field, high into the second deck into a section that is closed, no man’s land. A grand slam that tears the game open, it seems, beyond repair.

“Huh,” I say. “What about Arjun?”

“Who’s that?”

“Finch didn’t tell you?” That’s Cassie’s boyfriend. She lives with him.”

Tanner lets out a sharp laugh, but he didn’t say anything. Then, “You’re not friends with him are you?”

“What if I was?” I say, and waited for him to answer, but again, he just sits there. I let him off the hook. “I’ve never even met him.”

I look of relief sweeps over his face. “I thought I’d really fucked that all up,” he says.

I make a laugh. “Good thing you didn’t.”

“Wow.” Tanner notices the score. “We’re getting crushed.”

“Yeah,” I say. We watch the game silently. The away team bats around the lineup, scoring another six runs, making it 10-0 before we finally get the third out. The bottom of the seventh is three up, three down, light’s out and I turned to see if people are leaving but not yet. Dana comes back with a beer in her hand.

“What did I miss?”

When she sits down, I stand up. “This game’s over.” And, “We’re not going to get over that last inning. I’m going to take off.”

“Sure thing man,” Tanner says.

“Good luck at school.” I put out my hand.

“Thanks.”

We shake and then I shake Dana’s hand and say nice to meet you and she says likewise and I take one last look at the bright, well-lit and green, green field beneath the almost opal-colored sky. I am ready to sleep.

I leave the Coliseum among empty cases of beer and half-eaten hot dogs. Night has almost completely settled in and I had thwarted myself out of this little joy as well—watching the bright, sunny afternoon come to a rest over the ball diamond, the pale white moon floating above it all in the gentle sky. I take the footbridge over the train yards, the high, chain-link fences topped with razor wire, glinting stainless steel, sharp and smiling, inquiring someone to try his luck climbing over. I walk past an old Mexican couple selling churros for two dollars, and a saxophonist who hadn’t yet started to play for the crowd that would soon be making its sad and defeated way back home.

“How are you doing?” he asks as I pass.

“Good, thanks. And you?”

“All right, all right.”

Right before I enter the BART station he asks, “We winning?”

“No, not tonight.” I descend the stairs to feed the turnstile my ticket and re-ascend to catch the first train back downtown. The hills over East Oakland are dark, but for the twinkling of lights in people’s homes and streetlamps, and quiet. I stare at the giant glowing Mormon temple embedded just above Fruitvale like a chunk of a much larger spaceship has broken off and hurtled down to earth, East Oakland, and crashed into the hills. I imagine it was just biding its time, glowing away, refulgent, until one day it would be found and leave the rest of us behind.

My gated community is silent, and my apartment is silent, and for some reason, my ears ring as I shut and lock the door of my place. I stand for a moment and listen to the blood circulating around my brain. I go to the bookshelf in my room and take out a scented candle that my girlfriend left behind when she left, Sparkling Icicles. I light it and watch the flame flicker. I think of my ex-girlfriend, of Cassie, and I think of him, that urban cowboy Finch. I turn off the lights and lie in bed on top of the comforter (I don’t even take off my clothes), the moonlight falls through my window. The room begins to smell of men’s cologne from the candle. And it was quiet save for the humming in my brain, the occasional whooshing sound of BART coming or going from the city to the East Bay or vice versa. I am thinking of her and trying to let it go and Cassie, the pointless, aimless job, Janelle who lorded probation over me, Finch and Tanner, Ellen and, yes, even Shafiq.

I imagine the protester’s tent camp downtown, and I imagine them all coming together and marching from downtown to my gated community on the waterfront, their picket signs and drum circles and chanting. They are chanting for me, they want me to come out. When they come, if they come, I will not join them, but I will not resist. I smile at this thought. Still I lay quietly on my back and I feel myself slipping into sleep but not before a moment of panic that my girlfriend might come home at any minute, and then of relief when I remember that she won’t and then, finally, the blackness of dreamless sleep.

"Situations and Revisions," Excerpts from An Unspecific Dog: Artifacts of This Late Stage in History

Author’s note, or some post hoc reasoning about what ties the following disparate texts (and their one-hundred forty odd companion pieces) together into a respectable florilegium. In Rortian terms, the subjects of these texts, either explicit or implicit, are caught between vocabularies, between contingency and certainty, the interim in which certain kind of ironic vitality exists, where tragedy and humor are equally likely and often deeply entangled. No text is more than a page; many are a pair of lines. Any longer and something resembling meaning might’ve coalesced. 

5. It has been estimated that, because of their importance to certain branches of developmental psychology, one in two sets of twins has been clandestinely observed against their knowledge during the course of their lives.

137. Certain statistical institutions still insist on categorizing the cause of some suicides as melancholy, even though there have been no official diagnoses in some decades. Also, there are grumblings that what we call the nightingale is, in reality, two separate species.

110. A respected medical journal was forced to print an apology for the contents of a recent paper by a reproductive endocrinologist on the relationship between postpartum depression and the use of epidurals in which the author, seeking to link the pain of childbirth to the strength of motherly instincts, had called the bond between mother and child a flavor of Stockholm syndrome.

145. There are promises that, with improvements to fMRI technology, what matters to us will become more clear.

115. The notion that a person dies a sort of genuine death when their name is spoken for the last time, having become increasingly popular with secularists in recent years, has led to the founding of a not-for-profit organization that assures users that after death, in exchange for regular dues paid while alive, two or more volunteers will have a conversation about you on your birthday (or a given day of your choice) based on available photos and information, much of which is submitted via an online questionnaire. It is required of the volunteers, according to the terms and conditions, to wonder what you were like.

11. An entire apartment building had evacuated themselves before firefighters arrived to discover that there had been no fire in the first place, even though no fewer than ten distinct calls had been placed to emergency services to the contrary. When interviewed later as to why they had called emergency services and evacuated the building when there had been no fire, most answered that they had simply assumed there had been a fire.

21. A prominent writer of online hotel reviews who popularized the notion that, just as the gallery can elevate an object to the level of art by removing it from all context and forcing us to contemplate the thing itself, the hotel elevates human life in much the same way, died at home in his bed.

55. An autodidact that had learned a great deal, perhaps even all there is to know, about contemporary philosophy by watching lectures from all of the great teachers of the day online, marched into the office of the head of the philosophy department at a prominent university and demanded a faculty position, and then proceeded to rattle off an impeccably constructed argument that adroitly melded two previously discontinuous strains of continental thought as a demonstration of his mastery of the subject matter. Before the department head had been able to respond, the autodidact turned and walked away, having realized something of the nature of the academy.

82. A man who leapt from a twelfth story building had thought himself a bureaucrat.

91. There is a well-sourced rumor that there is still such a thing as the House Assassinations Committee, and that they meet for lunch on Thursdays. There is also a competing theory that a group of Representatives who meet for lunch on Thursdays has been nicknamed the House Assassinations Committee.

Bikini Lines

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about vaginas in all their forms—smooth, hairy, pierced, bedazzled. It’s an admittedly odd focus for a young heterosexual woman, but there it is. I recently heard there is a surgery women are getting now—mostly rich women in places like Los Angeles and New York City—that is essentially a face lift for your vagina. These surgeries mostly fall into two categories—vaginoplasty, which is designed to “tighten up” a vagina that has become “loose” from childbirth or aging, and labiaplasty, which is designed to change the size and shape of labia (making them smaller or larger or correcting any-GASP-asymmetry). A high school health educator once said that you can never get your virginity back once you’ve lost it. That may be true, but this level of tightening and lifting might get you pretty close.

In fact, one of the offered procedures is referred to as “revirgination.” This surgery, called a hymenoplasty, repairs the hymen. If your fiancé always fantasized about marrying a sexually experienced virgin, you’re in luck. There’s a surgery for that!

I’ve never resorted to “vajazzling,” and at twenty-nine years old, I’m not really the target market for any kind of “plasty.” But I have kept my genital area smoothly shaved for almost fifteen years now. I’ve given it little thought for most of that time, until a few months ago when I decided (several glasses of wine into girls’ night) that there may be something odd about the whole practice. My best friend, Stephanie, just giggled as I began my rant about the unfairness of men growing facial hair while we have to shave every inch of ourselves several times a week. “I don’t know,” she remarked. “I think of it like armpit hair. No one wants to see that.”

Later that night, I couldn’t help but think back to the first time I shaved, to watching little black hairs spin and twist their way to the shower drain like ants caught in a sudden downpour-induced stream. I was so careful with the razor that first time, anxious that I was going to skim a little off the top of something I needed. Even if it wasn’t anything I had much use for yet.

My friend Arlene and I shaved our pubic areas for the first time on the same night. She was my first true friend when I moved to New Hampshire from Virginia at age thirteen. I left an urban middle school with a thousand students and found myself in a rural school serving grades six through twelve with only about five hundred students. Most of these students had been together since kindergarten, and with an average of fifty to sixty in each grade, they knew each other’s stories as well as their own. In Arlene, though, I found someone I could connect with, who appreciated the irony of every aspect of our miniature lives, who was as passionate as I was about finding something bigger, and who knew there was life beyond that small school. Arlene and I did almost everything together. By sixteen, we were dating best friends Sam W. and Ken D., a set of pre-paired boyfriends that tied everything up neatly.

I don’t remember the first time Ken asked me about shaving. I had never given it any thought before. I kept a neat bikini line for bathing suit season, but that was it. I’m sure he was awkward about it. He probably made some jokes, a few innuendos. I do remember him commenting that it would make oral sex so much better, as if I cared. At barely sixteen, my sex drive hadn’t kicked in enough to care if, or how often, we were intimate.

But Arlene and I talked about it over chips and salsa and pints of Ben and Jerry’s Karamel Sutra—a decadent ice cream with a caramel core surrounded by chocolate and caramel ice cream with fudge chips. The ice cream was definitely more sensually pleasing than anything I was doing with my boyfriend. And it turned out Arlene was getting the same kind of comments from Sam, whom I can say with certainty had never seen a shaved woman in the flesh (so to speak). So, we decided we’d shock the boys together. We made a pact. We picked a night, and each of us took to the task of balding our vaginas for our boyfriends.

We found ourselves painstakingly lathering and scraping, lathering and scraping, lathering and scraping. It took longer than I anticipated, but after about thirty minutes, I had removed every speck of the hair I’d only had for a couple of years, barely even long enough to form a solid relationship with. When I finally finished, I ran my hands over flesh as soft and bald as a baby’s bottom—or a baby’s bottom with some spotty razor burn.

I'd like to go back and ask those sixteen-year-old girls what they thought they were doing. More, I'd like to go back and ask those sixteen-year-old boys why we weren't enough for them, just the way we were. Here we had two teenage boys, not exactly sexually in demand, not very experienced, who were getting the opportunity to see us naked, to touch us, to have us touch them. You would think they would thank their good fortunes for being the speediest sperm sixteen to seventeen years ago. You would think they would count this as a blessing, one like few of their classmates had. Instead, we had two teenage boys who found that our young, trim, curved bodies were not enough to complete their fantasies.

And what fantasy is this anyway? Where did they get it in their heads that we would somehow be more sexually appealing if we removed one of the first indicators of sexual maturity?

Most researchers who have looked into the phenomenon point to pornography as the root of this depilous trend. According to a 2011 article in The Atlantic, a review of Playboy magazines from 1953 through the 1980s showed that more than 95 percent of models were shot with natural pubic hair. Researchers claimed that this changed in the late twentieth century. One popular theory is that as modern media “legitimized voyeurism,” viewers wanted to see everything clearly. Point-of-view pornography in which action is filmed from the perspective of one of the participants, with close-up views of genitals, also became increasingly popular. To allow for zoomed-in, detailed imagery, pubic hair was thinned and eventually removed. By the 1990s, about two thirds of Playboy Bunnies had natural pubic hair. By the 2000s, less than 10 percent of nude models were completely unshaved.[1]

I’m not the only one who sees in this some kind of perverse need to make women look like little girls. The article quoted Ohio University researcher Joseph Slade who said “bare pubic areas are most common in videos advertised as featuring young women, because it does infantilize them or make them look pre-pubescent.”[2] Though there are exceptions, of course, the vast majority of mainstream pornography features women that are shaved.

It’s a disturbing idea. Life imitating art, imitating life? Young women, acting out the fantasies of young men, based on the behavior of porn stars, who are imitating prepubescent girls, to fill the pockets of old men. Quite the paradigm. All of this leaves us with teenage boys like Ken and Sam (Ken—the Irish Catholic conservative Republican, and Sam—who didn’t like his girlfriends to wear short skirts in public) essentially saying that they wanted the real women in their lives—and I use the term women loosely—to bear a closer resemblance to Tanya Titties on the two-page spread of last month’s issue.

Worse, you have Arlene and I accommodating them. So there we were, sixteen and as bald as when we were ten. At the time, I know it made us unique among our classmates. Now, I wonder if it would. In 2012, Florida-based Uni K Wax ran a Fourth of July promotion offering 50 percent off waxing services for girls fifteen years old and under. That’s right, under. You too can take your eighth-grader for her first bikini wax. It certainly begs the question: Who is bringing their daughters in for these procedures?

When I was that age, I wouldn’t tell my parents I needed tampons, never mind a clean shave. I dreaded the new torture that was annual gynecological exams. And yet, these girls are laying it bare for salon employees.

A subculture of young teenagers who haven’t finished growing pubic hair are being encouraged to remove it. It’s not hard to imagine why so many young women view their genitals as dirty, shameful, and unappealing.

In fact, when the company received a little pushback on their promotion, they released a statement that said:

“This is not a trend, it is not grooming; having hair removed is a hygienic necessity." [3],[4]

A hygienic necessity? A shocking assertion. The implications behind the salon’s services are clear enough, but I would never have expected to hear the organization say explicitly that leaving hair in place was unhygienic. It’s an interesting statement, given that most gynecologists would disagree.

What most gynecologists are saying, according to my research, is that far from creating a sickening swamp land of sweat, pubic hair actually absorbs sweat, helping to keep the area dryer. In addition, the friction created when people have sex without the benefit of pubic hair can cause microabrasions that open the door to infection.[5]

What about sexually transmitted diseases? Surely part of the reason we practice good hygiene is to reduce the risk of these diseases? According to most researchers, the risk for STDs increases when women shave bare. Why? Because hair serves as a natural barrier for bacteria. More importantly, hair removal—whether by shaving, waxing, or depilatory cream—creates small wounds in the flesh that are mini-doorways for bacteria and viruses. Hair can be such an important barrier to bacteria that surgeons have stopped shaving patients in preop because shaving the vaginal area before surgery actually increases the risk of infection.[6]

One STD in particular, Molluscum contagiosum, has become significantly more prevalent as shaving has become more commonplace. This is a pox virus that forms pearl-like bumps that can become red and inflamed.[7] Sexy.

So, it turns out that pubic hair does have a purpose: reducing friction that can cause skin abrasions while protecting against bacteria and pathogens.

In 2011, a family physician publicly cried out for a “truce in the war on pubic hair.” Emily Gibson, MD, argued that going bare down there was a dangerous trend, pointing to research that showed that freshly shaved pubic areas are more vulnerable to herpes infections. She explained that the way that level of smoothness is maintained—using frequent hair removal—leaves behind microscopic wounds. She said, “When that irritation is combined with the warm moist environment of the genitals, it becomes a happy culture media for some of the nastiest of bacterial pathogens, namely group A streptococcus, staphylococcus aureus and its recently mutated cousin methicillin resistant staph aureus (MRSA).”[8]

She also pointed to an increase in staph boils and abscesses. To add to the horror, she said that she has also seen soft tissue bacterial infections of the labia, caused by “spread of bacteria from shaving or from sexual contact with strep or staph bacteria from a partner’s skin.” In other words, you can put on a condom, but if your genital area is covered with small wounds, you’re still leaving yourself open—literally—to contracting a blood-borne and/or sexually transmitted disease. All for the sake of having a vaginal region that resembles a Barbie doll more than a grown woman.

Photography by David Cordero © 2016

When Arlene and I decided to surprise the boys with our newfound smoothness, we acted as if this was somehow a sign of empowerment. And while some women may find empowerment in a variety of body modifications, that was far from what was happening here.

We were modifying our bodies at the repeated behest of teenage boys who didn't know enough to appreciate what they had. We were taking this step only with the validation from each other that this was acceptable, and we were doing so behind locked doors, knowing that were our parents to find out, we would each be in for a hell of an unpleasant, never mind incredibly awkward, conversation. Taken in the full context, it's hard to see this as anything other than what it was: two young women engaged in the age-old struggle of trying to fulfill the roles carved out for them by their friends, sexual partners, and families.  

When I began researching the genital grooming trends, I brought it up to my sister, wondering what her thoughts were on the matter. “Katrina was just asking me about that,” she said.

“What?” I asked. “My six-year-old niece asked you about shaving her vulva?”

Dominique laughed. “No. But she’s seen me in the shower. She was more asking about how people’s bodies are different.”

“Oh—okay,” I said. But I kept wondering how long it would be until she did ask her mother about it, and what the right answer would be.

If a young girl asks why some women shave their vaginas, what answers can we be comfortable with?

  1. Because men like it (and we should always alter our bodies to meet their sexual desires)
  2. Because it’s sexy (and we aren’t already sexy, in the full throes of womanhood)
  3. Because pubic hair is gross (starting her off early with insecurity about her sexual identity)
  4. Because everyone does it (false and probably not something you want your child to start thinking is a valid reason for decisions)
This last is an interesting one, because it speaks to the idea of social norming. In college I worked for the residential life department, and we spent a lot of time trying to capitalize on social norming. The premise is easy. Let’s say 20 percent of college girls binge drink, but because you hear about them the most, everyone thinks that 80 to 100 percent of them do. So then girls who aren’t out of control with their drinking feel like outsiders; they feel a pressure to conform and then they start binge drinking. Sooner or later, what started out as a false impression becomes the truth.

We learned that we could turn this to our advantage. We would put up posters that said things like “Fifty-five percent of college students do not drink under age.” Sure, we were openly stating that a lot of students did, but we were also trying to combat the notion that this was everyone. Or we would put up signs saying “Seventy-five percent of students would keep a friend from driving if they had been drinking.” Then we were giving students a positive norm to try to live up to.

This seems to be a concept well at play in the area of pubic grooming practices: women shave because they think the majority of women shave.

As I approach my thirties, it's hard for me to recognize Arlene and I, digging into pints of ice cream, convincing each other to make those first moves with the razors, joining the masses of women that painstakingly maintain a hair-free zone below the belt, trying to fit the mold that was expected of us.

Back then I remember thinking that I never wanted to be associated with hairy, man-hating feminists with their victim ideologies. I remember being horrified at the thought of rocking the boat, or violating what seemed like reasonable social norms. I couldn't imagine thinking it was okay to question grooming expectations, let alone rant about unfairness in the workplace, burn a bra, or breastfeed in public.

It's amazing how much things can change. On a recent trip to the zoo with my boyfriend, Dylan, I almost bumped into a young mother holding her infant in her arms. I did a double-take, because her light pink tee had been slid up enough that her infant could latch onto her breast. I almost missed the two to three inches of exposed flesh.

Later, as Dylan and I drove away, my dirty feet propped up on the dashboard, tapping out the rhythms from the radio, we started talking about the exhibits, the gorillas, and children who acted wilder than the apes.

“I know,” Dylan said, rolling the windows up and clicking on the air conditioning. “Speaking of, did you see that woman with the baby?”

“The one breastfeeding?”

“Yeah.” He paused. “That was, uh, unexpected.”

I felt righteousness flare up and immediately let it fly loose at him. “What’s that supposed to mean? It wasn’t like she pulled her top off in the middle of the zoo with tassels on her nipples.”

“Nothing is wrong with it. Just, you go to a zoo, you’re walking around looking at apes, you don’t expect to see that.”

The argument flew on as you might expect. He, gently pointing out that while he loves breasts, he wasn’t expecting to see them at a zoo. I, accusing him of buying into a commercialized and sexualized version of women in which our body parts were not there for any express purpose (such as breastfeeding) but rather for male entertainment. Few are offended by scantily clad women, fulfilling male fantasies, used to advertise fast cars, but let a nipple slip out to nourish an infant and suddenly everyone has an opinion.

Including me. Because deep down, I was really mad at myself. Mad for even noticing that woman. Mad for having spent time on my own trying to decide if her actions were appropriate. Frustrated with the teenage girl I had been, that girl who thought nothing of shaving herself to appease her boyfriend, but would have judged that mother harshly for nursing her child in public.

Arlene too has come a long way in fifteen years. She's a new mother now, struggling as I imagine many new mothers do with too much to do, too little time to do it, and too many people in her life with an opinion on how she should be doing it.

I imagine her, standing at a children's museum, hair up in a messy bun, tired eyes, resting beside an exhibit with a crying hungry baby. If she reaches down, moves her shirt, and allows her baby to latch on, I hate to think that anyone would be judging her. Or that she would let them. I become so angry imagining that somewhere, the same people who think that natural hair on a woman is somehow "gross" or "unclean," the same people who enjoy women's breasts plastered on magazines and advertisements and TV screens, would find it in themselves to judge her for publicly breastfeeding. I find myself so exhausted at the thought of her trying to fit the world's expectations for her and her body—the nurturing mother who has to breastfeed out of sight so that she doesn't ruin the fantasy that her breasts are sexual playthings, balancing bath time and play time with enough time to keep herself shaved below the belt.

When I turned eighteen, I got a tattoo on the small of my back of a cross with a rose winding up it. This was just months after Arlene's eighteenth birthday and her first tattoo. Another rite we went through together. Looking at my tattoo, I try not to waste time wondering if I regret getting inked. It's a record of who I was. Besides, there is no use trying to decide if you want to keep something that is permanent. But hair is different. You can cut it, grow it, shave it, or trim it. At some salons you can even dye it. Unlike my tramp stamp, the decision to stay bare doesn't have to be permanent.

One day recently, I looked down and realized I’ve spent about 80 hours of my life shaving my vulva and I can’t think of one good reason why. More and more, I found myself trying to think of a good reason to continue doing something that is essentially an unhealthy hassle. Trying to think of a reason that was about me and not about what I think the world expects my body to look like. I didn't find one.

It’s been nine days since my last shave. I stood in the mirror the other day, naked, and tried to look at myself kindly. The woman I am now, as opposed to the girl I was. Still curvy, but a little more rounded than I was back then. Breasts larger than I thought they were going to be, but not quite as perfectly perky as at sixteen. Someone who can have sex with the lights on and talk comfortably with her boyfriend about her decision to stop shaving under her panties.

There is a thin layer of dark brown hair over my pubis, and I like it, like looking in the mirror and seeing a woman and not a girl.
 

[1] Ashley Fetters, “The New Full-Frontal: Has Pubic Hair in America Gone Extinct?” The Atlantic, December 13, 2011, accessed April 17, 2016, http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2011/12/the-new-full-frontal-has-pubic-hair-in-america-gone-extinct/249798/.

[2] Fetters, “The New Full-Frontal: Has Pubic Hair in America Gone Extinct?”

[3] Mark Leevan, “Bikini waxing for teens and tweens offered by Unikwax,” Examiner.com, July 7, 2012, accessed April 17, 2016, http://www.examiner.com/article/bikini-waxing-for-teens-and-tweens-offered-by-unikwax.

[4] “The Right Time for Girls to Begin Waxing,” Uni K Wax, July 4, 2012, accessed April 17, 2016, http://www.unikwax.com/2012/07/.

[5] “Brazilian waxes may increase risk of viral infection,” NBC News, March 18, 2013, accessed April 17, 2017, http://bodyodd.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/03/18/17361392-brazilian-waxes-may-increase-risk-of-viral-infection.

[6] Alicia J. Mangram et al., “Guideline for Prevention of Surgical Site Infection, 1999,” Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology 20, (1999): 247-278.

[7] “Brazilian waxes may increase risk of viral infection.”

[8] Emily Gibson, “The war on pubic hair must end,” KevinMD.com, April 29, 2011, accessed April 17, 2016, http://www.kevinmd.com/blog/2011/04/war-pubic-hair.html.

 

Down To The River

After the nest was empty, and after my mother left him, my father played poker.

The Texas Hold ‘Em tables at the Indian casino were shrouded in cigarette smoke, assaulted with slot machine bells and whistles. Cocktail waitresses brought complimentary rum and cokes.

My father folded most hands. Pushed his pocket rockets. Chose deuces and fives as his cards to bluff on. Quietly laughed at the suckers who drew to inside straights or stayed in every hand on the prayer that the flop might bring good news.

He focused on percentages. Every gamble calculated. Making all the right moves.

He won his way into a Las Vegas tournament. Local media interviewed him, and he had his expenses paid for a flight into the desert. When he wrote me, the bluster of his emails belied his claims that it was just business. Just another game of cards. After all, there was a two-million-dollar purse at stake. TV exposure.

My father has never told me that he was lonely. He’s never discussed the stakes of this trip beyond dollars and cents. But I knew.

The prospect that he might win back everything he had lost and start anew.

Fifty-three years. Fifty-two cards.

He didn’t win. He was eliminated at the end of the first of three days of play. Checked out of his hotel early and uncharacteristically shelled out to change his flight and fly home early.

It’s been years.

He tells me, on that last hand in Vegas, he was down and needed to make a big move. He won’t name the cards in his hand or on the table, the stakes, the percentages. I know he hasn’t forgotten.

We never play cards. He’s too quick to criticize, and I’m both too sensitive and not a good enough player for it to be competitive. I tell him stories of winning ten bucks off a Friday night game over a kitchen table, over a bowl of popcorn. He listens. Laughs. But I can still see bigger prizes in his eyes.

If I Showed Her Would She Like It?

I am aroused by Gertrude Stein’s "If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso" because it reads differently than other poems. It has rhythm. The grammatical structure and rhymes she uses are unusual. Her poem is about sounds more so than words, which triggered my interest in choreographing a dance using nonclassical forms: modern, ballet, and jazz techniques with variations, just as Stein’s repetition varies.

I used movements and phrases that evoked Stein’s words. For instance, when Stein says "father and farther," I execute a move often performed by male ballet dancers for "father" and jazz runs to illustrate "farther."

Stein's poem does not give us a representational portrait of Pablo Picasso; instead, it tells us about his essence. The point of my dance is to interpret Stein's words, which, in turn, illustrate the inner qualities of Picasso.

 

We, the Builders

I

WE built it just to tear it back down. Again and again. Again and again.

As children we built great empires. We began as noble settlers, slowly evolving into a small collection of modest cities, followed always by the imperial impulse. Periodically we were prompted to make improvements to our palace, which began as a crude thatch hut with a dirt road leading up to it. Through cement and stone, the palace improved. The road went from dirt to gravel, gravel to brick, brick to stone, stone to gold, tracking our progress with each step. Then statues and wings were slowly added. The right wing an arch, the left wing a series of columns until they evened themselves out. This was how we traced our progression from weakness to power through the familiar accoutrement of global domination and cultural annihilation. Somewhere in the sands of artificial deserts, the remnants of our unrealized empires still lurk …

Suddenly, an order for destruction came from within the luxurious marble structure. Aerial forces, from halfway across the world, deployed in spite of, because of parental misgivings and the hand wringing of advisors: the soft contortion of the face, the furrowed brow, the shades that hid terror. For both, there remained, from the chaos of a domesticated past, a lingering, vague memory of worry, of protest, of expressed unhappiness. But what would a parent or advisor know about quelling peasant uprisings or navigating the intricate game of international diplomacy and war. And yet, what did we know, or how to react. We had seen the flaming ball of magma, the fractured and nascent earth take its shape. Slowly a green noxious cloud drifted into the hills and valleys of our territory, of our sacred land, killing crops and people. But we had won because there was only one color left: our color.

We destroyed the Earth and took to space. Then it was time to blow it up and start over. Again and again. Again and again.

II

WE not only built great civilizations, we built great cities. We built the power plants and ran the electrical wires to factories and super-markets. We built sewer systems to houses and apartments to manage the waste of the multitude. We built stadiums and airports for entertainment and revenue, fire departments and police stations for safety. We paved roads and watched simple shops transform themselves naturally, following the laws of progress, into towering skyscrapers. We built airports and watched modern birds soar through a sky of perpetual daylight.

We looked at statistics and responsed to them. Overtime, erratic financial decision-making and tax policies, which encouraged exploitative growth, turned into the perplexity of bankruptcy and blight. At that moment, we would decide to destroy what we had built, like modern day Shivas, dancing the world into and out of existence, while people still aimlessly walked the streets, the little ant-like cars maneuvering through intricate roundabouts on their way toward a nowhere home or job. A million anonymous tragedies happening simultaneously.

Suddenly, a plane crash, the puff of orange fire and grey smoke, destroys an industrial complex. Again and again the plane careens into the building, into the grass, blackening the simulacra earth. Across the city, traffic still flows, buying, selling, circulation, movement.

Or, perhaps, suddenly a natural disaster, like an earthquake.

Or, perhaps, suddenly a tornado beginning on the edge of town, slowly moving through to tear up roads and demolish entire sections of the towns.

Or, perhaps, suddenly a green leviathan. The giant monster with yellow gnashing teeth would stomp the remaining buildings to gray, fragmented rubble. Doing our biding, it would maim what we had labored for, kill what we had never loved, an intellectual and emotional stillbirth, an unsustainable creation. And then we would restart. Again and again. Again and again.

III

WE built great businesses, becoming tycoons of industry. Our pockets fat with primitive accumulation, we bought plots of land in order to tear up the evergreen pines and tame the wild grass, reshaping the land to our wants because God made the earth a common treasure for all but did not intend it to stay that way.  

We opened the doors and watched faceless singles or pairs stroll down an anonymous road toward the entrance. The slow trickle would turn into a steady stream as they seemed willing to doll out whatever the price of entry. Their yearning for joy would not be deterred.

We used consumer data. We mined data. We diversified products. Everything was customized because customization is key, the ubiquitous myth of uniqueness made manifest. Ice cream, cotton candy, stuffed animals, umbrellas for when the vertical white dashes of rain began to fall. The popping sound of pin-wheeled umbrellas opening would transition into a bobbing sea of red and white or blue and black until the rain stopped.

We managed a labor force to pick up the crumbled paper trash and the splatters of sea foam green vomit, the byproduct, the remainder of profit and entertainment. A series lone janitors tasked with a Herculian task of cleanliness. They had been displaced from the land, but were easier to appease than those pesky peasants, marked out from the crowd by the singularity of his clothes and tools, the embodied underpinnings of fun.  

Suddenly, the time would come when we would begin construction on The Loop, The Loop of Death. The anticipation of twenty cars hanging in mid-air before splintering, disconnecting from each other, crashing down in a plume of gray smoke. Death was the terminal point of our pleasure, the release after years of dutiful and successful operation, running in the red, the maximization of profit. And as the last unknown shuffler cantered back down the unknown road, it would be time to start fresh. Again and again. Again and again.

IV

WE even built lives of our own. We crafted faces because customization is key. We bought humble homes and had them carpeted, covered in the wallpaper of our choosing because customization is key. The houses were stocked with appliances: a four-burner stove, microwave, stainless steel refrigerator, automatic coffee machine, dishwasher. This was our home.  

We got jobs that would become careers and watched as cars pulled away every morning taking us away for hours at a time leaving an empty house, leaving us to marvel at the presence of human absence, the sadness that the life was not there. But then it would always return.

We made friends, married, bore offspring, and had affairs. The scintillating garbled banter of transgression, feeling the rush of nauseous excitement as we learned in for a kiss from our best friend’s partner while ours was away at work or in another room. The knowledge of proximity made us excited because we wanted the threat of being caught.

We saved money and bought jukeboxes, redid the interiors of houses, built swimming pools. Withholding at times, we made sure to defecate, urinate, shower, eat, sleep, socialize, acquiescing to necessity.

Suddenly, the impulse for destruction and death, the search for the boundary. We surrounded our creations with fake ferns, glistening bright green-leaved objects inside wicker baskets. Doors and windows were removed. We watched a house fire spread, a confused chaos, always the roar of the fire punctuated by panicked screams and death throes.

Or, perhaps, suddenly we removed the ladder from the pool during a pool party watching joyful splashing turn to fearful flailing. We manipulated time because the persistence of treading water showed a disturbing resilience that disappears when time speeds up. We watched the parent or widow grieve, too distraught to work or eat, pacing the now empty spaces of a house that had been filled with the indecipherable babble of life until this moment.

And then we would start anew. Again and again. Again and again.

V

WE came to know the world in this way. We learned to pay attention to the trappings of civilized humanity: the state, infrastructure, diplomacy, tax rates, wages, unit costs, waste management, allocation of resources, statistics, data, information. But we also learned about cleanliness, work, war, death, desire.

We learned how to stoke the delicate flame of human life and to arbitrarily and just as creatively snuff it out.

We came to know the rules of the game and how to play it. But built into the game was another game that somehow we all, collectively, played as well. There, on the limits, a game of torture and death, destruction and pain, of worry and fear, of inadequacy and futility. Late nights spent in the dark firing weapons into an unknown enemy that we would neither let flee nor forfeit. The longing for global domination, territorial domination, market domination, personal domination pushing us to continue, awaiting the realization of the unfulfilled desire in the destruction of the mind’s labor and the hand’s labor that would create the tabula rasa.

We came to know the world in this way: by building it up and tearing it down. We are the builders and we are the builders. Again and again. Again and again.

-- W.H. Holmes, As I Saw It, pg. 416-421 (1932)