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John Spencer Walters

The Importance of Casket Readiness

by John Spencer Walters

 

I just received a lovely letter from the Neptune Society informing me that persons of my vintage are choosing in large numbers to have their rotting bodies cremated. The missive fails to indicate specifically, but I assume that the good people of Neptune are soliciting post-mortem incinerations only. Perhaps the letter is purposely vague to include those willing to accelerate the inevitable. I consider excessive and presumptuous the urgency with which Neptune spurs on the Postmaster, “time sensitive information enclosed.” I’ve often thought of doing the job myself but I lack the courage necessary to inflict pain upon my palpably rotting body. The contents of my mailbox reveal daily that Neptune is not the only commercial buzzard circling relentlessly above.

One thing I can remember without prompting is that I’ve entered the penultimate stage of existence, a leading indicator of which is that even though I’ve begun to drool I’m still able to drive myself to the liquor store, where well-meaning attendants ask (much too insistently) if I require help toting that half gallon of Johnny Walker to the car.

As long as the sun shines brightly on my liver spotted head, I will not allow the funeral industry to hasten my death. Though I’m certain as one can be of my near term survival, I comport myself as if death were imminent, dressing always in such a way as to be casket ready or oven worthy, as the case may be. I wear a sport coat, even to get groceries. If the trip to the market rises to the level of an outing (includes a stop at the pharmacy or dry cleaners), I accompany the coat with a tie. I’m considering wearing a tie to bed, in the event that death is merciful and takes me in my sleep.

Why, you may wonder, should anybody dress formally after having toiled forty years in a uniform he has longed to shed, perhaps even shred? In retirement you’re as inclined to compromise your comfort as you are to set an alarm clock. Why should you forsake cargo shorts in favor of gray flannel slacks? You’ve earned a stint of unmitigated leisure. You require a reason more persuasive than merely appearing spiffy upon arrival at Cheerful Charlie’s Funeral Home.

Simply put, nothing needs to be turned on its head quite so compellingly as a few beliefs cherished among retirees, to wit: upon retirement the typical American male consummates THE DREAM, unloading every reminder of time spent in button down confinement, trading the wing tips for well-worn flip-flops, lounging in his favorite sweats, the ones that pair splendidly with the baseball jersey, so much so that they evoke the specter of formal attire, unbecoming of his new found freedom and clearly violating the unwritten dress code to which the American male retiree unflinchingly (and unabashedly) adheres. While tossing the jersey to the closet floor he notes the unwelcomed presence of a charcoal brown suit, which somehow evaded the U-haul on his epic post-retirement party trip to the consignment shop. He settles on the wife beater T as his “go to” shirting, largely for its liberating effect on that which he has no doubt is a fetching shock of hair growing on his upper back. He reserves the baseball jersey for October, and for weddings and funerals at which he considers his attendance inescapable.

I strongly advise against this practice, this line of thinking. For those males aged 62 years and older, your need has never been greater than to dress like those sartorially resplendent adults of the 1940s and 50s. I ask my aged male brethren to carefully and objectively study their physical appearance. Even without rose-colored glasses, a rush of delusional thoughts fills your brain, which you embrace as perfectly plausible. You imagine your age defying face appearing as a Google pop-up, the caption to which encouraging viewers “to read further and discover this 63 year old grandpa’s secret to looking 30.”

Clear your mind of all such chimera. Allow reality to take control of what remains of your cerebellum. Note that the lines on your face, which for years you dismissed as mattress indentations, are now pronounced and sufficiently deep to transport water. Your eyes are drawn to one such rivulet carved into your forehead. You follow its path and realize that it’s shaped much like the I 695 Beltway around Baltimore. You need help and imagine it arriving in the form of a Lamborghini, followed by a head-to-toe- skin transplant, which you imagine as powerful palliatives, if only you could afford these. Don’t despair. You can obtain a measure of grace and dignity without breaking the bank.

Nothing is as affordable as dressing well to compensate for the unsightliness of old age—all the while keeping you looking sharp for your inevitable date with the funeral pyre. Do this, if not for yourself, then for your community, which already is blighted from excessive exposure to gnarled, ancient flesh. It matters not how fit you think you may be. Elderly flesh requires more not less clothing. The over-the-calf socks are a good idea when combined with a nice pair of slacks, but never with a pair of Bermuda shorts. You can rehabilitate your community’s aesthetic by unburdening it and yourself of the Bermuda shorts, all bottom wear, really, that fails to cover your ankles. Please retain, and tenderly care for, the navy blue blazer.

Ask yourself whether swimwear is really necessary in life’s final chapter? The answer clearly is no. Find a recreational activity that calls for a superabundance of outfitting, perhaps fencing or snowmobiling. Why should I care either about the beautification or greater edification of my community, you ask? Your community, as with all things that don’t meet with your approval (which includes just about everything) can go to hell!

I’m aware that old age offers no gift greater than the freedom to disregard what others think. This gift often impels us to enter into situations for no purpose other than to tell somebody, preferably a snot-nosed kid, to fuck off. I get it. It’s one of my great indulgences. It’s the one thing that makes tolerable the infirmities of old age. Indeed, I’m a charter member of the HEHE Club (Hate Everything, Hate Everybody), an elite organization established specifically by, but not limited exclusively to, old timers. It demands only that its members demonstrate the unremitting surliness of a grizzly bear.

That said, I hope to awaken your highly developed social consciousness for which you were famous but which succumbed effortlessly to the comforts of middle class living. Whether by the grace of God or by force of superior talent, our generation developed a rich culture worth sustaining. The young have rendered it barren. As you examine our cultural landscape, hideous in nearly all of its aspects, are you not aroused by the desire to edify it, even if only in some small way. Consider the music, but for your sake don’t dwell on it. Our young people have done for music what ISIS has done for Islam, taken it back to the sixth century, otherwise known as The Age of Alvin and the Fucking Chipmunks. Consider the state of literacy—but again don’t dwell on it. Our grandkids can neither read nor write—neither can their teachers. Ours may have been the last generation to produce persons of intellectual depth, musicians who actually played musical instruments, who wrote songs demanding an audience whose IQ’s exceeded 60.

You may think that it’s only fitting that civilization die with us. Music and literacy are in a state of moribundity, and even though we no longer can do the kind of heavy lifting necessary to give life to these, we can put an arthritic shoulder to the wheel in an effort to salvage at least one vestige of civilization. We can show younger generations how to dress like adults.

In closing remember, too, that death is rarely merciful. Too often death is preceded by an extended institutional stay, where you will languish, too enfeebled to dress yourself. This task is left to nursing home staff, perhaps in your case a fun loving bunch known for hilarity, who relieve their drudgery by “dressing up” the residents. Imagine the staff collapsing in merriment as they admire their handiwork: you lay in bed staring blankly at the ceiling, wearing a sundress, your heavily rouged face accented by blonde hair extensions. There’s no telling what indignities you may suffer in your addle brained oblivion. In the charge of strangers, you have no idea how foolish you can look, which is one more reason to dress yourself smartly, and make the most of it, while you are able!

 

BIO

John Spencer WaltersJohn Spencer Walters has published several award-winning academic journal articles, in addition to a monograph, U.S. Government Publication: Ideological Development and Institutional Politics, from the Founding to 1970, which is as dense as its title suggests.

 

 

 

Tad Bartlett

Head Space

by Tad Bartlett

 

 

While I’m writing this essay, on a weekend in between drafts, Nicole and I pack up our three kids and go to visit her parents at their boat house overlooking Lake Pontchartrain. It’s the day before my father-in-law’s birthday, so I’m carrying his presents in each hand as we walk up the stairs to the main room. I’m focusing on the stairs in front of me. I have everything balanced and don’t want to trip. I forget about the low overhead clearance of the ceiling before the landing, that it’s low enough that I should duck. I fail to duck, and bang the top of my head hard into the ceiling.

“Not again,” I think, angry at myself, stunned, dizzy, trying to get out of the way as my two boys and little girl push past me up the stairs. A high-pitched whine, like a fine-tuned turbo engine, fills my ears. A gray curtain drops in front of my vision. Four days later, when I’m adding this intro to this essay, the headache won’t have stopped, the unsuccessful search for easy words will continue, and I’ll still have a stumble to my step.

 

* * *

 

On March 2, 2012, the National Football League announced it was investigating New Orleans Saints officials and defensive players for operating a system of bounties, pooling money and giving cash awards for deliberate hard hits on opposing players, hits that often resulted in the opposing player leaving the game. As a result of that investigation, two months later the NFL suspended four Saints defensive players: defensive captain Jonathan Vilma for one full year, Anthony Hargrove for eight games, Will Smith for four games, and Scott Fujita for three games. Vilma filed a federal lawsuit to fight against his suspension two weeks later, followed soon by a suit brought on behalf of the three other players by the NFL Players Association.

The first meaningful skirmish in the litigation took place on the morning of July 26, 2012 in U.S. District Judge Helen Berrigan’s courtroom in the imposing brutalist federal courthouse on Poydras Street in downtown New Orleans. Vilma was there with three of his attorneys, including Peter Ginsburg, stick-thin and hatchet-faced under thinning gray hair; and Duke Williams, a big man, built like he may have been a football player himself once. The League had a representative down from the executive offices in New York, along with five attorneys from New Orleans and Washington. The Players Association and the other three suspended players added three more attorneys to the room. They were all gathered for Judge Berrigan to take evidence and hear testimony on behalf of Vilma, who had requested a temporary restraining order to lift his suspension and allow him to go to Saints training camp—commenced that same day in the heat and humidity of the Saints’ practice facility in suburban Metairie, Louisiana—while the legal issues were pending.

To win his temporary restraining order, Vilma would have to prove a “likelihood of success on the merits” of his case. While there were esoteric legal issues involving the Collective Bargaining Agreement and principles of labor law, on the facts Vilma would have to show Judge Berrigan that it was likely he could prove he did not offer stacks of cash during defensive meetings for the players to take out Kurt Warner or Brett Favre or other opposing players, that he and the Saints defense only engaged in legal tackling under the rules of the game, that even legal tackles could be “big hits,” and that injuries suffered by opponents were just part of the game and not the result of a nefarious bounty scheme.

The public had a chance to see much of the League’s evidence during releases of documents and affidavits from the investigation, and the players had, as the Alabama country folks I grew up around liked to say, a heap of ‘splaining to do. I was in the courtroom that day for my job, but I had personal thoughts on the day’s issues, as well. While I was a huge Saints fan, going into that hearing I was pissed at Vilma and the other players and coaches. To me, the released documents showed them to be a bunch of entitled athletes celebrating hurting people, then saying anything to try to get away with it. In team meetings, they’d shared pictures of the opposing quarterbacks they’d left crumpled on the field, exhorted each other to “destroy each quarterback” and “kill the head,” awarded money for “cart-offs” and “knock-outs,” and promised to pay for any fines levied by the League. In public, they acted flabbergasted that the League executives would get upset at them for “just playing the game.” Boys would be boys, and what’s the harm? It felt like high school writ large, the football players out smashing mailboxes on a Friday night for laughs and no consequences.

 

* * *

 

I had my first diagnosed concussion when I was nine. I was in fourth grade. I was playing “chase” at recess. I don’t recall if I was the pursuer or being pursued, but the pursuit had taken us around the playground equipment. This was in 1981, when playgrounds were still all metal and rust and sharp edges and hard ground, before today’s rounded corners and plastics and “play surfaces.” We ran at full speed around the merry-go-round. Trying to be clever, we changed directions several times in mid-orbit so that the chase might collapse on itself. I remember running fast in one direction, the merry-go-round full of laughing kids rotating the other way. I remember the feeling of air rushing past me, and exhilaration. I remember turning my head to look behind me. I remember the sudden collision with a friend as I faced forward again. I remember the breath being knocked out of me. I remember falling sideways toward the merry-go-round, flailing my arms out. I remember my head making contact with the edge of the rotating metal platform, just behind my left ear.

I don’t remember anything else until five or six hours later, when my mom got home from work and woke me up. I was lying on top of my bed. I’d apparently gotten up from my fall, gone back into class when recess was over, finished the school day, ridden my bike a little more than a mile home, let myself into the house, and laid down on my bed and passed out. My mom took me to the emergency room and I got my first concussion diagnosis. In those days, that came from nothing more than a penlight shined in my eyes and resulted only in advice to my Mom to “keep an eye on him the next few days” and an admonition to me to “watch where you’re going, young man.” No CT scans or MRIs. No medications or orders of bed-rest.

 

* * *

 

The main strategy for Vilma’s case against the League was, in large part, to demonstrate that football is inherently a rough game. His attorneys wanted to drive home the point that defensive players engage in violent contact as a routine part of the game, and that it would be preposterous to suppose that defensive players would be able to control their hits to differentiate them from the routine to such a degree as to underlie a bounty system, that such a bounty scheme would be neither necessary nor feasible.

After Vilma testified for an hour, his attorneys called up a succession of current and retired Saints defensive players. First up was Troy Evans, for several years the Saints’ special teams captain and a back-up linebacker who had played with Vilma before retiring and starting a school bus company back home in Ohio. Evans was a solid block of a man, full of right angles, blonde hair spiked up over a square-jawed face.

Peter Ginsburg, Vilma’s attorney, asked Evans, “Is the NFL a violent game, in your opinion, Mr. Evans?”

“Yes.”

“You and your teammates are expected to deliver big hits. That’s your job, isn’t it?” Judge Berrigan watched Evans intently as he answered Ginsburg’s questions.

“Correct,” Evans responded. He elaborated, “A big hit is—how do you classify it? A big hit is obviously a high-speed—probably—collision that would result in sometimes the defender and sometimes the offensive player violently getting taken down, which in turn makes the crowd go crazy.”

“I was going to ask you about that,” Ginsburg said, his finger moving down his legal pad, as if Evans had jumped ahead of script. “It has an impact on the crowd, obviously. Correct?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Does it have an impact on the team, your team?”

“Absolutely. Just euphoric, natural, celebratory—it’s part of the game. Hard hits just kind of—it’s like slapping the table in this room.” Evans slapped his hand hard on the small table in the witness box. “Everybody would jump.” Sitting at one of counsel tables, I flinched.

Ginsburg smiled. The reporters sitting in the gallery tapped away on their laptops. Ginsburg asked, “Do those kind of hits also have an impact on the opposing team?”

“Absolutely. One side of the crowd gets loud, and the team gets jumping up and down; and the other team is picking the other player up, and the crowd goes quiet.”

 

* * *

 

I didn’t play football as a kid. I played soccer. I played it for twenty-two years, from ages five through twenty-seven. In Selma, Alabama, of all places, we had a thriving league operated by the local YMCA, with two three-month-long seasons each year, one in the spring and one in the fall, and a traveling team of all-stars in several different age groups that traveled throughout the South. I played in the Y league from five until fifteen, and was on the traveling team beginning when I was ten. We weren’t the typical jocks in town. Instead, we were largely an odd collection of speedy and spirited misfits whose coaches ran us and trained us until we were resilient and smart about the game in ways you wouldn’t expect kids from Selma to be.

My next three diagnosed concussions were from soccer. It wouldn’t sound so bad to say that I had three concussions in twenty-two years of soccer, but in reality those three concussions came in a four-year span starting when I was twelve.

The first one was at an all-star game in Montgomery. An aggressive player from a Montgomery squad and I were in the air challenging for a head ball. I got the ball, and he got my head. I remember a few minutes later that I was on the sideline, vomiting, but telling my coach to put me back in. I don’t remember the space in between, or the ride home to Selma after.

The second soccer concussion was the next year. Kicked in the head.

The third one came two years later. It was the consolation game in the final round of the state tournament. We were fighting for third place, and the game was close. It had been raining all weekend and the field was a mess. The opposing team lined up for a corner kick. I was guarding the back post. The corner kick sailed into the box past our keeper. An opposing player settled the ball to the ground, then kicked it toward the back post. There was no way our keeper would be able to cross the mouth of the goal to make the save. I left my feet, launched so that I would intersect the ball’s trajectory. I’d like to think I headed the ball clear and that we won the game, securing third place in the state, before I hit the side goal post. But if I’m being honest and not just relating the myth of me, I can’t really tell you what happened in that game, other than that I hit the side goal post with my head. I have no idea if I saved the ball, or if we won the game. No idea.[1]

 

* * *

 

Vilma’s next witness was Randall Gay. Gay grew up an under-sized but highly recruited all-around player from the small town of Brusly, Louisiana. He’d been a star defensive back on LSU’s 2003 national championship team. He made the New England Patriots as an undrafted free agent, and was a member of the 2004 Super Bowl champion team his rookie season. In 2008 he signed with the New Orleans Saints, where he played for three years, including as a member of the team that won the 2009 Super Bowl.

When Gay entered the courtroom, his suit was a little looser than Vilma’s and Evans’s had been. He wore a bright orange tie, but the knot was slightly askew. He gave Vilma a brief but nervous smile as he passed the plaintiff’s table. When he raised his right hand for Judge Berrigan to administer the oath, it trembled.

Vilma’s local counsel, Duke Williams, conducted the direct examination of Gay, as Ginsburg took a seat next to Vilma. Williams had a casual, garrulous tone. He first tried to put Gay at ease by exchanging pleasantries about their respective nick-names, “Duke” not being Williams’s given name. “I understand you have a nickname,” Williams said to Gay, “correct?”

“Yes, sir,” Gay said, stifling a grin. “Blue.”

Williams smiled. “I may call you ‘Blue’ at some point today, but—”

“That’s fine,” Gay said.

“Do you prefer to be called ‘Blue’ instead of ‘Randall’?”

“I’ve gotten to love them both,” Gay answered. I started to feel anxious for Gay. He seemed ill-fitted to the setting. There was that loose suit and askew tie. Then there was the hand tremor, which was continuing, and the inconclusive almost-grins. Something seemed not quite right for him. I quietly rooted for him to calm down.

Williams turned to the line of questions about the nature of the game. “Now, as a defensive back in the pro game, you do a lot of hitting, don’t you?”

“Yes, sir.”

“How would you characterize the hitting that you guys do back there in the secondary?”

“Well, a lot more than a lot of us really want, especially for a small guy like me, but it’s a lot of contact. No matter how you put it, you’re going to get hit.”

Williams bulled through the point. “That’s what you’re expected to do, isn’t it?”

Gay sighed, looked down in his lap where he was trying to stash his trembling hands, then back up. “If you want to play, you better.”

Williams pushed on, oblivious to Gay’s discomfort. I wanted him to stop, move on to someone else. I couldn’t put a finger on it, but I was feeling for this guy. “Even if a guy weighs thirty, forty-five, fifty more pounds than you, you still have to take them down as best you can?”

“Even when a guy weighs even more than that,” Gay said, “because sometimes you go against guys a hundred pounds more than you, and you better get them down or they will find somebody else to do it.”

Williams kept going down this line of questions, though he’d already made his point and then gone beyond it. “In that position, you’re not just doing all the hitting. You’re not dishing out all the punishment. You’re taking some too, right?”

“Oh, yeah,” Gay said, “because if not, I would still be playing football.”

Williams looked down at his notes. Perhaps he realized that this wasn’t part of the case, to show the actual harmful effects of this violent game they were trying to portray to the court. So he changed the subject, trying to get to some basic timeline testimony. “Now, how many years did you play with Jon Vilma as your teammate?”

Gay looked back at his lap, then up to the ceiling. He tried to smile at Judge Berrigan, but she didn’t smile back, so he looked to Williams again. “Well,” he said, drawing it out with a pause. “We came in around the exact same time, because I was a free agent and I signed with the Saints and I think either he got traded to the Saints right before I signed or right after …” I could see he was trying to reconstruct a string of events to find the answer to Williams’s simple question. He paused, then concluded, “But we came in together.”

Williams looked at Gay for a beat, then asked what I’m sure he hoped was another simple, factual question. “He was the team captain, wasn’t he?”

“Well, I don’t know about that year,” Gay said, and Williams’s face fell. “He may have been. My memory isn’t that good, but he was—you could tell he was a team leader from the beginning.”

Williams tried to shift gears again. Perhaps he wanted the court to hear if Gay appreciated Vilma’s team leadership when he was injured, or perhaps he just wanted to establish whether Gay had been in all the team meetings. Williams asked, “Did Mr. Vilma—while you guys were with the Saints, did you—were you ever on Injured Reserve?”

“Yes.”

“Did you—what year?”

“Oh, my last year I went on Injured Reserve because of a concussion my last year.”

Williams soon gave up on his direct examination of Gay. Gay looked relieved when Judge Berrigan told him he was excused from the stand. He practically ran out of the courtroom.

 

* * *

 

Between my fourth diagnosed concussion and the fifth one, twenty-four years passed. In the interim there were plenty more hard hits.

My junior year of college, there was the collision on U.S. Highway 231 just south of Sylacauga, Alabama. I was driving my then-new girlfriend, Nicole, and two more friends up to hike and camp on Mount Cheaha. It was a crisp day. “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” by Bauhaus, was playing on the car stereo as we approached the intersection with Alabama Highway 38.[2] We had a flashing yellow light and the cross-traffic on Highway 38 had a stop sign and flashing red, so I didn’t come off the accelerator much as I saw an ivory-colored Nissan Maxima approach on 38 and slow down. When the Maxima suddenly sped into the intersection, I had no time to stop, and we t-boned it hard. The police report estimated from the short length of the skid marks that we likely hadn’t slowed below fifty miles per hour before the impact. Despite the seatbelt, I spider-webbed the windshield with my forehead. But the initial pain I complained about in the ER was my shoulder where the seatbelt had dug in, and my knees, which had left two holes in the dashboard. Those pains faded quickly, but I suffered headaches for several weeks.

Then there was the summer trip to the beach a decade later. We’d rented a house on Dauphin Island. I woke up at daybreak one morning to the sound of waves crashing. I’ve always loved body-surfing, and the break that morning was irresistible. Long, steady, four-foot faces, curling east to west, one after another, a low-pressure system somewhere out in the Gulf. Without waking anyone else in the house, I slipped into a swimsuit and swam out to where the bigger waves were breaking. I waited until the perfect wave stood above me, its front crest teetering, ready to crash down. I dug hard with my arms and kicked out in front of the wave to match its speed, was swept up to the top, and felt the curl start to rumble beneath me. I tried to hold my body stiff and stay on top, but found myself suddenly out too far, my upper body in mid-air, and then the wave threw me down its face, the whole weight of it crashing down and pile-driving me head-first into the sandy bottom. As my face dragged against the sand, I began to see silver stars at the periphery of my vision before I lost orientation. Seconds later I was at the edge of the surf-zone. My head was pounding. My face stung. I put my fingers up to my right forehead and temple, then brought them out to where I could see them. They were covered in blood. After a few minutes of sitting there, I went up to the house and admired my bloody, scraped-up face in a mirror. I was proud of that one, in the stupid way you can be when you’re only freshly into your thirties, and forgot completely about the headache.

Several years later, about to turn forty, I was less stupid about my health. I was going for bike rides in the mornings before work. On one ride, a slip of my foot as I tried to get my shoe back into the clips on the pedal after I’d slowed for a car at an intersection, and somehow, clumsily, I twisted over my handlebars and hit the pavement hard. The dumbest, simplest thing, but I was in the middle of the road with my helmet cracked in three places. I picked up my bike, waved off the motorist who had just gone through the intersection, and went and sat on the side of the road for a few minutes. Then I got back on my bike and turned around and went back home, abandoning the rest of my ride. I felt a little fuzzy as I tried to put thoughts together, and wondered if a hit hard enough to crack my helmet may have done worse damage on the inside, but after a few days I felt fine and forgot about it.[3]

 

* * *

 

After Gay’s testimony, the hearing moved through testimony from the Saints’ interim head coach, Joe Vitt, and defensive players Scott Shanle, Sedrick Ellis, and Jonathan Casillas.[4] The final player to be called to the stand was Roman Harper. From the moment he entered the courtroom, he was on a different level than the other players who’d testified. Other than Gay’s tremulous appearance, the rest had been competent and on-message, but they seemed like what they were, football players in a courtroom. It wasn’t their natural element. But Harper was as at ease walking into Judge Berrigan’s courtroom as he was blitzing opposing quarterbacks from his safety position.

Other than Gay, the other players had worn well-tailored but largely conservative attire, had spoken precise answers in restrained voices. Harper entered the courtroom in a powder-blue suit, wide lapels, and an open-collared shirt. But where that could have come off as too casual for a courtroom on other people, or even costume-ish, on Harper it looked sharp. Put together. When he answered questions, he spoke in a loud but relaxed voice that included everyone in the courtroom in the tale he had to tell. I somehow felt for the short time he was on the stand as if we were buddies. He didn’t smile out of nervousness, or out of some conspiratorial camaraderie with Vilma, or to curry favor with the Judge or the lawyers. He smiled because he was confident and because he was happy in his space.

“Where did you play college ball at?” Williams opened up his direct examination.

“University of Alabama, 14-time National Champion,” Harper answered.

Williams dove into the line of questions about the inherently violent nature of the game, but as they moved through the testimony, Harper rejected the word, “violent,” and tried to get those in the courtroom to understand the game as both a brotherhood—among both teammates and opposing players—and as a response to what the crowd demanded.

Williams asked, “Based on your experience and your observations as a college and professional football player, can an entirely legal hit sometimes hurt somebody?”

“It can hurt both sides, actually,” Harper said. “I’ve been in those collisions where it’s just large men running into each other at high rates of speed, and collisions are going to happen; big hits, things like that will occur, and sometimes guys get injured. I’ve been hit a few times.”

Circling to his theme, Williams asked, “Would you say, among other things, that the NFL is a violent sport?”

“It’s a violent sport,” Harper began, but then he shook his head and restarted his answer. “It’s a gladiator sport.” When he said this, his countenance was serious, and it was clear he wasn’t boasting or engaging in hyperbole, but reaching for a genuine historical referent. “I hate to use the word ‘violent,’” Harper continued, “because people think violence is guns, knives, things like that. I think it’s a gladiator sport where guys are actually grown men, they get out there and compete in front of a large crowd. It’s all about winning. We are going out there to compete with each other. It’s a blessing to be in this business, and we all understand that, but I would never want to say it’s a violent, violent sport, but it is a physical sport. It’s a gladiator sport. We are all out there competing to try and get out there and earn a living.”

Williams began to key in on the language that appeared in the evidence presented by the League about talk during Saints defensive meetings, language that appeared to back up the allegations that Saints players had a bounty system to reward deliberately targeting opposing players. “In your experience, and you can go back as long as you want to, even when you played when you were a younger boy—is it true that football talk, locker room talk, meeting room talk between coaches and players, it’s pretty rough, profane, and violent talk at times, or gladiator talk? I know you don’t like the word.”

“Yes, sir, it’s pretty brash. The thing is, when you are younger, you can try and motivate guys, ‘Hey, guys, if we win this game, let’s go to McDonald’s. Let’s go to Pizza Hut.’” Harper flashed a smile, and everyone in the courtroom suddenly remembered their own childhoods and team trips to McDonald’s, possibly even if they had never played a team sport. Harper continued, “And then as you get older, those same things don’t matter anymore. You have to take care of your body. Nobody wants to get excited about McDonald’s. You can always go buy McDonald’s. That’s not going to be the same case. Then as you get older, college, it’s more about the buckeye on the helmet or a different stripe or different things, you know, getting out—girls. You know, they get girls if they make big plays and things like that that enthused other guys.

“Now that you are in the League, you get out there, you have to rowdy guys up, you have to talk it. Not everybody cares about girls. Most guys are married and things like that. Nobody cares about McDonald’s because we all can afford that. Now you have to go out there and use different angles and different ways, choose your words to try and fire guys up and get them going. And that’s where you can kind of get it misconstrued because you’re working with grown men. We all have our different factors of motivation. When you try to get a group of grown men thinking the same angle, with the same mind-set, that’s what you want to try and do; sometimes your words can be misconstrued from the outside looking in when they don’t know exactly what you mean. That’s what it’s about, trying to get everybody on the same page to go out and try to win the game.”

Williams seemed enthralled with Harper’s take on the game and on the locker room bravado and brotherhood. “Forget about the money,” Williams said. “Vilma holding up cash in his hands or stacking it up on a table or stuffing it in an envelope. I don’t care.” And really, by that point, who cared about that in that courtroom? This all seemed to be about something more. “You have never heard him suggest or tell another player that they should go out and intentionally injure a player on the opposing team; is that right?”

“Yes, sir, that is correct. No, sir, he has never said that. This is a privilege to play this game. Nobody wants to take it from anybody. It’s a brotherhood. We all are trying to go out there to earn a living, and we all understand that. I would never want to try to intentionally hurt anybody. Injuries do occur playing this sport, but nobody wants to intentionally hurt somebody. We are all trying to earn a living for our family and friends.”

“You often have good friends, sometimes very close friends on opposing teams, right?” Williams asked.

“Yes, sir. All the time—I grew up playing with a lot of guys on other NFL teams and things of that nature. So nobody wants to hurt anybody. We are just out there competing at the highest level, and we definitely enjoy it and we all love to do it. We’ve been doing it since we were kids.”

 

* * *

 

By the beginning of 2013, I was wearing thin. At work, the Vilma litigation had taken as many twists and turns as a Barry Sanders touchdown run, and we were awaiting a ruling from the court on motions to dismiss Vilma’s lawsuit; while at the same time our other cases were going full-tilt. In late August 2012, I’d added going-back-to-school to my full-time law practice, starting in the MFA program at the Creative Writing Workshop at the University of New Orleans. On the home front, our third child, Lucie, was nearing ten months old and proving to be much more energetic than her brothers had been at that age.

On January 17, 2013, Judge Berrigan issued an order dismissing Vilma’s claims, bringing that litigation largely to a close. I began to look forward to a retreat with my writers’ group at the end of the month to a cabin in some low mountains in Tennessee. On January 31, the day we left on our retreat, the copy of Rolling Stone that arrived in my mailbox and that I threw in my bag with my other books and writings contained the story, “This is Your Brain on Football,” by Paul Solotaroff.

Solotaroff’s story detailed the horrors of repeated head trauma, which can result in a condition known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or “CTE.” According to Solotaroff’s article, CTE develops as small clumps of brain cells essentially short out, then begin poisoning other clumps of brain cells, with disastrous effects—depression, mood swings, violent outbursts, and suicide, or, in other cases, an eggshell-headed victim where one insignificant-seeming bump to the head can lead to sudden swelling of the brain and quick death. The kicker is that CTE can’t be diagnosed using current scanning technologies, and can only be positively determined in a post-mortem examination of brain tissue. Suffering from the ill effects of multiple concussions, retired NFL linebacker Junior Seau committed suicide the previous spring by shooting himself in the heart, so that his brain would be left intact to be studied by researchers.

As I began reading the Solotaroff article, I thought back to Randall Gay, whose trembling testimony had struck me so profoundly. Gay, in his tremors and his unspoken difficulty in answering the questions, was a living example of the result of the gladiator mentality that Roman Harper had followed up about in his own testimony. Even during a hearing that wasn’t actually about concussions, I had quietly registered that connection. As I reflected on that while reading Solotaroff’s article, the article then turned on my own experiences:

Each year, according to one study, up to 3.8 million Americans suffer a concussion on playgrounds or in contact sports, and the majority of them are children. That’s a staggering number, both in human suffering and the costs exacted on their families. It is also very surely an undercount. “The large majority of concussions don’t render kids unconscious, so neither they nor their coaches know they’ve happened,” says Dr. Robert Cantu, chair of neurosurgery at Emerson Hospital, the co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE) and the nation’s leading authority on concussions. “Boys in particular don’t tell us when something’s the matter. The real number is way north of 4 million.”

I sat up a little straighter in my chair in the cabin in Tennessee as I read the rest of the article. I hadn’t experienced many of the symptoms discussed in the article, but I began to wonder. I thought I could understand my instinctive relating to Gay during the hearing the previous summer. At the same time, I took comfort that I didn’t suffer from the continuing headaches mentioned in the article, from confusion, from any of the rest of it. I was mentally sharp and had to be in order to continue as a lawyer and a writer.

The night we arrived in Tennessee, it began to snow. The cabin was on a remote hillside looking down into a tight holler, a frozen creek at the bottom. Our car could only get halfway up the steep, rutted dirt drive before we had to leave it and walk the rest of the way. For three days, everything was about writing, and about being a writer in a community of writers. The stress that had been building up in me began to unwind, and I began to regain a focus I felt I had been losing. The day we left, a Sunday, the sun shone down strong and melted the snow and thawed the ice. The sky was a deep blue. I’d gotten exactly what I needed out of the weekend. I could sense there was a fragility to the peace I felt, but it was peace nonetheless. We said good-bye to those in our group who had come from other places, and our New Orleans contingent, five of us, began the eight-hour drive home.

In Warrior, a town in north Alabama, we stopped at a Jack’s Hamburgers for a quick lunch. It had warmed into the low 50s, and there were some tables outside, each one topped with a red fiberglass canopy with a scalloped edge, shaped to look like a jaunty umbrella to shade the table. Inside, the restaurant was chaotic, and the peacefulness I’d left Tennessee with began to ebb. There was a Twilight Zone feel to the place. All the customers were scrubbed clean and dressed well, and all seemed to be carrying bibles, as if we’d just walked in at the end of a church meeting. They gave us strange looks. We were scruffy, for sure, after three days in the cabin. The two males among us needed a shave. I sensed distinct distaste on the faces of several of the other restaurant patrons to see our group all together. I ordered my food first. It was hard to get the order in because the restaurant manager was yelling abusively at the counter clerk for getting a previous order wrong.

By the time I got my food, I wanted nothing more than to get out of that restaurant, so I headed for the door to the outside seating area. I slipped open the door and aimed for one of the tables, focusing only on the table and on putting my tray down and on being out of that place. I didn’t look up at eye level to see the canopy. The hard, fiberglass canopy. I rammed the top of my head into the canopy edge, which forced me down onto the seat. I sat there, stunned, while the rest of our group came out and ate. I had a hard time focusing on their conversation. When it was time to go, I told my friend, Maurice, that I’d hit my head. I tried to laugh it off, but when he asked if I wanted him to drive, I quickly gave him the keys. I was dizzy. The rest of the drive home, whenever I started to drift off Maurice would punch me, then engage me in conversation. I remember the drive home on Sunday perfectly.

On Monday, when I got up, I had a throbbing headache, radiating out from where I’d hit the canopy. I took some ibuprofen, then drove my boys to school, went to work, worked a full day, then went to fiction workshop that night, went through two and a half hours of workshop, then drove home. By all subsequent accounts, I participated fully in the day, though several people told me later that they’d noticed me wincing and grabbing my head from time to time.

On Tuesday, I still had the headache, and noticed I otherwise didn’t feel quite right. I thought of it at the time as “dizziness,” but in the barrage of new terms I would learn over the next few months I would re-term the feeling as “disequilibrium.” I took some more ibuprofen, then I took the boys to school again and went to work. While sitting in a meeting around ten that morning, I had to put my head down on the conference room table. One of my partners asked me what was wrong, so I told her that I’d hit my head “the day before” and was feeling nauseated, and that the lights were too bright. I offered up no resistance when she told me she was going to drive me to the emergency room. After a consult with the ER doctor and a CT scan, it was determined I’d had another concussion, and that I was experiencing post-concussion syndrome. That was a new diagnosis for me.

When Nicole came to the hospital to pick me up, I asked her if she thought I should still go to fiction workshop that night or if I should call my professor to tell her I couldn’t make it. That’s when I figured out I was mistakenly thinking it was Monday, and that I’d gone through all of the actual Monday without knowing it or remembering it.

The pain grew worse each day. Light was unbearable. My appetite dropped to nil. My children’s voices were torture to me, and they’re not loud children. I couldn’t walk a straight line. I was angry often. I was angry that I couldn’t sit upright for more than fifteen minutes. I was angry when my partners told me not to come into the office. I was angry that the pain wouldn’t stop. For the next three and a half weeks, I spent my time largely in our bedroom with the lights off, my head buried under a pillow. I would try to keep up with work via email, only to learn later that my colleagues had gone to each other with emails I’d sent them, concerned over the multiple typos and lack of general coherence.

Some days all I could do was sleep. Some days and nights I only slept fitfully, waking every few minutes. I missed class for the first two of those weeks, then began to go again, but Nicole had to drive me there and pick me up. When I tried to drive, I couldn’t make sense out of the lane markings on the road.

When I got in to see a neurologist, he confirmed the diagnosis of post-concussion syndrome and prescribed diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory, and a series of different pain-killers until we found one that actually at least took the edge off. He also prescribed nortriptyline, originally formulated as an anti-depressant but now prescribed commonly to manage pain in patients with post-concussion syndrome.

By April, I finally felt the curtain that seemed to separate me emotionally from everyone around me begin to lift. More often than not, I was mostly clear-headed again. The times I found myself searching in vain for a word or for the name of the person I was talking to began to come less frequently. By June of that year, I was off the anti-inflammatories. By September I was able to go off the pain killers except for a few days a month, and was taking only the nortriptyline on a regular basis. After a year and a half, I cut the nortryptiline dose in half. Six months later, still experiencing a few days of crippling pain every few weeks, I theorized that it would likely be better to still have occasional pain without medicine than have the same occasional pain with medicine, and went off the nortryptiline altogether.

I’ve held on to the end of the prescription for the painkillers and a large bottle of ibuprofen just in case one of the bad periods gets really bad, which they do sometimes. In researching post-concussion syndrome, I’d learned that, if symptoms weren’t clear by twelve months, they would likely never fully go away.

I know the pain is about to return in full force when the ringing in my ears turns up. The ensuing pain runs along two axes. Imagine a drill boring down into my head at the point of impact, extending down a couple inches. Then imagine a second drill perpendicular to that one, going in one side of my head about an inch below the top of my head, through the first axis, and out the other side. And then it radiates from there. Sometimes disequilibrium comes with the pain. Sometimes nausea. My old bouts of depression feel more ominous. I continue to blank on words and names from time to time, some times worse than others. I’ll forget conversations. It’s been two and a half years now. Even this far out, I had a three-day episode last week that was almost as bad as the immediate aftermath of the concussion. Stress—common, of course, for litigators and graduate students—can trigger the worse headaches, or sometimes they just come with no precursor.

The rest of the time I have a constant low-grade ringing in my ears and a background amount of pain. The only alternative to living with the pain is not-living with the pain.

Through all of that, through the paranoia about CTE, I wonder if I’ll end up like Randall Gay. Through no athletic heroism of my own, through no gladiatorial exploits or brotherhood-protecting machismo, but essentially through plain high-spirited living combined with a propensity to klutziness, I know about the misery and mystery of the multiply concussed brain. I think about Harper’s explanation of football players’ gladiator approach to wanting to give the crowds what they scream for, voluntarily subjecting themselves to the hard hits they know are coming, and I wonder if my own hard hits—knowing full well what has come before—aren’t any less voluntary.

These choices we make. On a recent trip back to Dauphin Island, I had my two boys—now 12 and 9 years old—out in high surf with me. It was those long, straight sets again. I was teaching them how to ride the waves. They would emerge from the tumbling foam, a whoop on their lips and a soreness in their bones, and would swim back out into the break with me. I’ve let them try out soccer, too. It didn’t take with my older son. My younger one, though he’s not very good at it yet, seems to love the sport. And my little girl, now 3, is following up behind them. I wouldn’t deny any of them these things I love about living.

But I wouldn’t—I won’t—let any of them play football. I recognize my hypocrisy and the fundamental contradictions. Is this just another symptom? Cloudiness of brain, cloudiness of heart? All of us, including my youngest, yell for the Saints on Sundays—“Go Saints! Get him!” Our lusts, our adulations, our living.

 

 

Note regarding sources:

The following articles were relied on by the author to corroborate his recollection about the New Orleans Saints’ “bountygate” investigation, and to confirm details regarding the players involved: Larry Holder, “New Orleans’ Saints bounty scandal timeline as Sean Payton prepares for return,” NOLA.com (Aug. 30, 2013); Mike Triplett, “NFL’s evidence against New Orleans Saints is legitimate, but it won’t end the debate,” NOLA.com (June 18, 2012); “Saints Agree to Terms with Randall Gay,” NewOrleansSaints.com (March 2, 2008); Jim Kleinpeter, “Former LSU, Saints Cornerback Arrested,” NOLA.com (May 9, 2013); and “Randall Gay among latest ex-players to sue NFL,” Associated Press (July 20, 2012).

The “bountygate” litigation in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana fell under the caption of Jonathan Vilma, et al. v. Roger Goodell, et al., 12-CV-1283 c/w 12-CV-1718 & 12-CV-1744. The Temporary Restraining Order hearing occurred on July 26, 2012. The excerpts from that testimony contained herein are taken from the transcript prepared by official Court Reporter Toni Doyle Tusa, CCR, FCRR.

Rolling Stone magazine’s coverage of football’s concussion issues, relied on by the author here, include Paul Solotaroff, “This is Your Brain on Football,” Rolling Stone, Issue 1175 (Jan. 31, 2013); and Matt Taibbi, “The NFL’s Head Game,” Rolling Stone website (Sept. 12, 2012).

The author also relied on the following additional sources in research for this piece: Eckart Kohne, et al., Gladiators and Caesars: The Power and Spectacle in Ancient Rome (Univ. of Calif. Press, 2000); Peter Rudegeair & Sharon Begley, “NFL’s Junior Seau had brain disease from blows to the head,” Reuters (Jan. 10, 2013); and Tim Anderson, et al., “Concussion and mild head injury,” Practical Neurology (Nov. 23, 2006), 6:342-357, at p. 354.

[1] After that season, I was more tentative on the field for a few years, mostly riding the bench on my high school team, before I found my spirit again and made the team at Spring Hill College my freshman year. In the final practice before our first game, I broke my ankle. I spent the next four years helping to bring a tough and all-in brand of the game to four intramural championship seasons, that first year as a hobbled coach and the last three years as a player-coach. After college, I played in any pick-up games I could find for a few years and in intramural leagues again when I was in law school.

[2] “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” was on a mix-tape I’d made a few weeks earlier. Something occurred during the wreck that left a glitch in the mix-tape at the moment of impact, such that for about five seconds in the middle of the song, the tape plays the music on the opposite side backwards before “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” comes back on. Every time I listen to that mix-tape (now ripped into my collection of .mp3s on my iPod, with the glitch intact), I recall that moment of impact.

[3] These three incidents weren’t the extent of my non-diagnosed head traumas. I’m constantly forgetting others. In proofreading an early draft of this piece, a close friend reminded me of another time when I hit my head on a low roof overhang at a lodge during a writers’ conference in Petit Jean, Arkansas in 2011 (I was dancing, badly), and wandered off into the night, where he and some others found me lying on the ground an hour later. There’s also the time I hit my head on the edge of the roof of a golf cart I was trying to jump on during the 2013 Louisiana Book Festival in Baton Rouge, trying to hitch a ride down to the book tent from the main venue at the state capitol. There may be other times I’m not recalling, as well. The point is, I’m extraordinarily clumsy, and often don’t account for where my head is in relation to other objects. It’s downright embarrassing.

[4] Of the witnesses who testified that day, only Coach Vitt remains with the New Orleans Saints currently, as the Assistant Head Coach and Linebackers Coach.

 

 

BIO

Tad BartlettTad Bartlett’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in print or online at the Oxford American, The Carolina Quarterly, Euphony Journal, The Rappahannock Review, Bird’s Thumb, The Subtopian, and Double Dealer, among others. He’s earned an MFA in fiction at the Creative Writing Workshop at the University of New Orleans; and is a graduate of Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama, and Tulane University Law School. He is a founding member of the Peauxdunque Writers Alliance.

 

 

 

Sarah Parris

NaNoWriMo – What Is It and Will It Eat Me?

by Sarah Parris

 

To most people November is a simple month, a lull between Halloween and Christmas where you get a week to eat turkey and be merry. To elementary students it’s the time of year to learn about the pilgrims and the Indians, and Christopher Columbus. To me it’s time to write a novel. National Novel Writing Month is a yearly event that thousands of people across the world participate in annually. The rules are simple. You have the thirty days of November to write 50,000 words, and all 50K must be written within the month.

To many this sounds crazy. I agree. To write over 10,000 words each week? Near impossible! Except that I have done it twice now, and look forward to it again next year. Why, you may ask. Why would I put myself through this? The answer is more complicated than you might think. That I love to write should be a given, but it’s not just about that. There’s something exhilarating about the mad dash, the craziness to get it done, the desperation to reach the goal, the endless nights of typing away when the rest of the world has long fallen asleep. I imagine it’s like running a marathon. You go and go and go, and when you finish it’s like you’re standing on top of the world. Plus, there’s the undeniable satisfaction of having a fat stack of paper by the end that you can mold into a story.

There are two types of writers when it comes to NaNo – the plotters and the pantsers. Plotters, like myself, spend the weeks leading up to November plotting out our stories, planning the characters and their backgrounds, charting maps of their worlds and figuring out how characters will get from Point A to Point B. This is well within the rules, as long as none of the story is actually written until November begins.

Pantsers, on the other hand, go into their stories blind and figure it out on the way, writing by the seats of their pants – hence the name. They trust their characters to lead them into the unknown and to find their way out again. They come up with the map and the history as they need it. This type of writing offers its own kind of excitement for the writer, and is well-suited to those who appreciate the flavor of spontaneity in their writing.

But no matter if you’re a plotter or a pantser, your goal is the same – write, and write quickly. NaNoWriMo is designed such that the writer is forced to slam out a story before she has time to think about it too hard. Creativity’s worst enemy is the writer’s inner-editor – that voice in the back of the mind that questions and criticizes everything, analyzes a story to death even before it’s born. The constant demand of NaNo to keep an eye on the outrageous word count goal presents writers with an opportunity to not only find out what they’re made of, but to hash out their raw ideas before they have time to quash them. Only after the month is over is the inner-editor released from whatever cell it was thrust into on November first, and once again allowed to clean up the typos, order chapters chronologically, and run continuity checks on characters and plot holes.

In fact, so much is done during NaNo to try and get that little editor out of the writer’s head that there are mini games and challenges that force the writer to expel it from thought. The NaNo community all but depends on these when the going gets tough, and writers in need can always find each other on the NaNoWriMo site when they need motivation or a writing buddy.

Word wars are mini-challenges that a writer takes against herself or others that encourage her to write as fast as possible without stopping to question her thoughts. In a word war the writer sets a timer for however long she likes (my favorite is ten minutes), and within that time writes as many words as she can possibly slam onto paper. If two or more are playing, the person with the most words wins. This almost guarantees that there will be typos, so much so that the five-minute word war has been universally dubbed the “Fifty-Headed Hydra” among the NaNo community. The nick-name was born when one writer’s five-minute word war yielded only three correctly spelled words; fifty, headed, and hydra.

Sprints are a variation on this theme wherein the writer is challenged to sprint to the nearest thousand words of their document in as short a time as possible. For example, if my document were sitting at 32,500 words, I would have to write 500 more words to make it to 33,000. Obviously, these can be more or less difficult depending on the last three digits of a manuscript’s word count. Blessed be the writers sitting at 32,997 at the beginning of a sprint.

Another strategy for those who fall behind in their writing is the dreaded 10K Day, a tactic I have had to employ a couple of times. The name is self-explanatory. The writer undergoing this challenge must write 10,000 words by the end of the day. I have only completed it once, the first time drawing close with about 9,000 words. I have heard tell of writers who have topped 15K in a single day. I salute them, and also wonder what kind of bionic fingers they have traded for their human ones.

Often when I talk about NaNo to others I’m met with awe and incredulousness. Several people have told me they simply wouldn’t be able to think of something to write 50,000 words about. To them I say I used to think the same thing. When my friend asked me to do it with her the first time I truly wondered if I would be able to make it to the end. What kind of story could I produce that deserved that many words? What could be worth that much of my time, that much devotion? But as I wrote, I discovered that my story came alive under my fingertips.

I had started the month with a rough idea of my story and the world it was set in. I had written other stories in this fantasy world for years and had a good idea of how the world worked. My characters were more of a mystery. I had my protagonist, a young girl of twelve years, a man, aged twenty-seven, both born with magic in a world where it does not come often to humans, and general of the goblin army. How were they connected? How would they meet? How would this story affect the overarching story of my world? I didn’t know, and I couldn’t know until I plunged in blindly. I only allowed myself one question – ‘what if?’ What if the goblin general were holding the girl’s mother as a prisoner of war? What if the girl set out on a mission to find her? What if the young man joined her along the way?

As I continued to write, thoughts came flying into my head that I couldn’t explain. I suddenly knew why my young protagonist thought her mother was in the goblin country, why the pixies in the southern forest were so angry all the time, why the goblin wars had gone on for so long, and exactly how evil my evil queen was. The longer the month stretched on the more frantic I was to finish. So much so that I holed myself up in my bedroom for the entirety of Thanksgiving break, only emerging to eat. Meal times were the only moments my family saw me, so engaged was I in my characters and the world I had created. I believe that can happen to anyone who finds a story they truly want to tell. It doesn’t take someone special to complete NaNo. It takes passion and dedication.

There are other challenges similar to NaNo. One of them, Camp NaNo, is associated with NaNoWriMo. It is held every April and July. Unlike in the November NaNo, Camp NaNo participants set their own word count goals, as small or as large as they like. The only rule to winning is that you hit your mark.

For script-writers, there is a challenge called Script Frenzy. This used to be hosted by NaNoWriMo, but due to decline in interest they were forced to let it go. The challenge stands, however, for anyone who wishes to write 100 pages of script in a month.

National Poetry Month is in April, and so is National Poetry Writing Month for those who want to test their hand at writing a poem a day in April.

Short storyists have claimed May as National Short Story Month and for those who wish to try it there is a Story A Day challenge where participants write 31 stories within the month.

There are also monthly writing challenges available through many social media sites, such as the #500words page on Twitter where participants are encouraged to write 500 words a day and post their progress for their followers to see. This is meant to get writers in the habit of writing every day.

I think one of the appeals of these challenges is that they’re not limited only to writers. Everyone is welcome as long they have stories they want to write, or even if they want to challenge themselves to do something new. So whether you’re a new writer or an expert, keep the tradition going! Set those pens to paper and show the world what you’ve got!

 

 

BIO

Sarah ParrisSarah Parris lives in Missouri with her family. She is a recent graduate from Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri where she earned a BFA in Creative Writing in 2015. Her stories are typically set in fantasy realms and center around young female protagonists. She presented a short story at the national Sigma Tau Delta convention in Albuquerque in the spring of 2015.

 

 

 

Ron Yates author

Kintsugi

by L.D. Zane

 

“You really shouldn’t go back into the house.” Dori, always the reassuring voice of reason, was concerned.

“And why not? I still have some things in the house which are mine, and I have the right to collect them.”

“This isn’t about rights. It’s about being smart and not giving them ammunition to use against you. And because your attorney advised against it. With you no longer on the deed, he said they could consider it trespassing. Knowing your brother, he’s just crazy enough to press charges.” There was no anger in her voice. It was more like trepidation, bordering on fear.

“He only advised against it. He didn’t say I shouldn’t or couldn’t do it.”

“It’s the same thing and you know it.”

“Maybe so, but how will they know when they’re in Florida?”

“There’s no maybe about it. Besides, I wouldn’t put it past him to have the neighbors watch the house and report to him. You know, Ian, you’re sounding like a child throwing a tantrum. I don’t know why you hired and paid for an attorney if you’re not going to follow his advice.”

 

I was one of a triad of owners of the house in which I grew up—the other two being my older brother and his mother. Even though she is our biological mother, I long ago stopped referring to her as my mother. I just refer to her by her name—Gertrude. My brother doesn’t feel the same way.

She caused the divide when I was born, about three years after my father returned from the battlefields of Europe. Gertrude had raised my brother, Henry, alone for the better part of two years—a year while my father was still in Europe, and another while he was recovering at an Army hospital in Kentucky from a third wound he suffered—this one at the German border, while serving with Patton’s Third Army. She insisted that since she bore the burden of raising Henry for the first two years of his life, and my father really had no bond with my brother after his return, that I would be his responsibility. “This one is yours,” Gertrude said to my father, matter-of-factly. Like two once-friends kids returning baseball cards.

I’ve never been sure why she felt that way. It didn’t seem natural. None of my friends’ parents ever did that—at least as far as I knew. Maybe she was just tired, didn’t really want me, or was angry at my father for leaving her, regardless of the circumstances. Nonetheless, it was a responsibility my father gladly and wholeheartedly accepted. I was his son, and my brother was hers. There was never any sense of kinship between me and my brother and his mother. It was like two separate and distinct families living in the same house.

My father would take me everywhere. He would only take Henry if he asked to come along, which wasn’t often, or when we went somewhere as a family—like on vacation, or to an Army reunion, or to visit my father’s family in Chicago.

When my father drove a delivery truck for a restaurant food service company, he would take me to make a weekend emergency delivery. The truck had a manual transmission with a huge shift lever on the floor, and he would let me shift it into gear. At eight years of age, that lever seemed as big as me. He would say, “Ready…go!” and I would push or pull the lever to the proper gear as he depressed the clutch. I had to use both hands and all of my strength. Even if I would grind the gear into place, he would always tell me I did a great job, and tousle my tangled crop of red hair.

He, too, had red, wavy hair—like many of his siblings and family members—and a fair complexion which accented his blue eyes. At six-two, and now in his early thirties with the same physique as when he left the Army, he was a strikingly handsome man with movie star looks, who always drew the gaze of ladies—even if he was with my mother, or they with another man—and even from a few envious men.

The man had a quiet intellect. With only a high school education, he could still finish The New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle in about an hour without the aid of a dictionary or thesaurus. Although he was a congenial guy who could make you his friend in an instant with his easy smile and soft-spoken manner, my father was a man of few words and fewer nuances who always kept his own counsel. When he spoke, there was no ambiguity. You listened.

One event still stands out. He took me by train to Philadelphia at a time when there was still passenger train service from our small town. He didn’t ask my brother to come along. Other than my trips to Chicago—which were cloistered visits to see my uncles, aunts and cousins—it was my first trip to a big city with my father as a personal guide. He stopped a policeman to ask directions to a museum. The officer had a blasé demeanor and didn’t look approachable—until my father addressed him. Each instantly recognized the other was in the war and began to chat.

“Ninety-Fifth Infantry Division. The Iron Men of Metz. Patton’s Third,” my father proudly stated.

“The Big Red One,” the officer responded with equal pride standing almost at attention.

“We fought and slept in the same mud and dirt,” my father said somberly.

“You bet we did, and we lived to tell about it. What can I do for you, soldier?”

“My son and I need directions. Can you help?”

The officer listened, then took out his note pad and wrote down the directions to the museum, and even suggested a few other sites of interest. My father introduced me to the officer, who shook my hand. After a few more minutes talking, they shook hands and slapped each other’s shoulders as they said good-bye, as if they were long-time friends. I suppose in a way, they were. I swear if the officer would have been allowed to do so, he would have used his police car as a taxi for us! My father was that good, but it wasn’t a front. He was genuine; the real deal. The best natural salesperson I have ever met.

My fondest memories, however, were of when I helped my father cook. He didn’t get the opportunity all that often with his work schedule, but how he enjoyed it when he did. The TV shows of the day portrayed a mother who stayed at home and prepared meals, and a family who sat for dinner in the dining room at a set time every day. This most definitely was not our home.

Gertrude owned a woman’s dress shop, and my father—before he finally landed a job with the post office and had a predictable schedule—rarely sat for meals with the rest of his family. He usually ate alone late at night, most times after his family was already in bed which, in retrospect, still saddens me. Perhaps that’s why I still would rather not eat than eat alone. But when he was able to do so, mostly on the weekends, he did the cooking. My brother and I were thankful, as Gertrude really had no desire, nor talent, for cooking. To this day, I do not eat at any place that advertises meals: Like Mother used to make.

One of my father’s favorite pieces of cooking equipment was a big blue, glazed ceramic mixing bowl. I don’t know where he bought it, but I always assumed it was secondhand—probably a throwaway from one of his restaurant customers—being it already showed wear with numerous chips around the edges which exposed the white ceramic. Not good enough for a diner or restaurant, but more than good enough for our eating establishment.

He would always invite me to help him mix the ingredients du jour. We would both get our hands into the bowl—my small hands squeezing around his large hands—and enjoy feeling the texture of the mix. We didn’t talk much. We didn’t have to. Our smiles said it all.

 

“So … let me understand this—you want to sneak back into a house which you couldn’t wait to leave, and even went so far as to have your name removed from the deed, all at the risk of being charged with trespassing to retrieve an old mixing bowl. Did I get it right, Ian?”

Her tone started out sarcastically, morphed into incredulity, and ended with her being totally pissed off. I was relieved she was on the other end of the phone.

“It’s not just some old mixing bowl. It was my father’s, and now it sits in the dark, behind a cupboard door, over a stove, in an empty house.” I was passionate in my defense and could hear my voice rise. But it wasn’t anger I was feeling. All I could think about was how my father came home late at night, and ate his dinner alone at the kitchen table by the dim solitary light that was built into the range hood, while the rest of us were comfortably asleep. Not once did I get out of bed to join him, or ask how his day went. Now I felt ashamed for being so selfish. All he ever wanted to do was make a little boy—his son—smile, and asked for nothing in return. Now that bowl was alone, and this was my opportunity to redeem myself; to make sure it never again sat in the dark alone. “I won’t let it happen again, Dori.”

“Let what happen again?” her tone becoming decidedly softer.

“Never mind. You wouldn’t understand. I’m going to get it.”

“Okay, Ian. But think about this. What if your brother makes an unannounced visit to the house and is standing there when you walk in? Do you have any idea what will happen next? Do you even care?”

I remained silent, and she filled the void.

“All hell will break loose, Ian. He’s crazy enough to have you arrested.” Her voice was starting to crack with tears.

“I’m not afraid of Hell, Dori. I’ve been there enough times in my life and made it through without the Devil even knowing I was there,” trying to make light of the situation. “Besides, it wouldn’t be the first time I was arrested.”

Her voice rose in anger: “You were a teenager then—a juvenile, goddamnit. Can’t you see the difference? Now you’re an adult where you can’t hide behind your age. You’ll have a real adult record.”

“You’re making more of this than it is, sweetheart. Nothing like that will remotely happen. I’ll be in and out before anyone knows I was even there.”

There was a very long pause. “Dori … are you still there?”

“Fine, Ian. Do what the fuck you want,” she said between full sobs. “You always do,” and hung up.

 

It was true what she said. All of it. Around the age of ten my maternal, bookie grandfather started to mentor me. He had no beef with the way my father was raising me, other than he thought I was growing up too soft. They both got along because he respected my father for his service in the war. My grandfather had fought with the British in WWI after emigrating from Czarist Russia and he, like my father, was a man of few words who always kept his own counsel. He thought of my father as more of a son, than Gertrude as a daughter, and made that known to both at every opportunity.

My grandfather taught me how to fight: how to survive on the streets by using my wits and my fists. At ten he also taught me and my best friend, Mikey, how to run numbers without getting caught. By the age of sixteen, Mikey and I were his collection agency. But it was my fighting and truancy which brought me into direct contact with the police on almost a daily basis.

My father didn’t like what I was doing; he had bigger plans and dreams for me, and tried to reason with me and my grandfather. I would just retort by saying I would be okay, that nothing bad would happen to me. My grandfather—who stood an inch taller than my father—would smile, put his hand on my father’s shoulder, and respond to him in his fading Russian accent, “Larry … I love the boy, your son, and I would never let anything bad happen to him. He’s a good boy. He just needs to learn the ways of the world. You and your brothers did growing up on the streets of Chicago, and you turned out to be a good man. So will he.”

Except I didn’t, and my father reacted. There were several incidents, at different intersections in our lives, and all had a profound and defining effect on the relationship between us. The first was when I was about fifteen. My father was now working for the post office and was able to sit with his family for dinner. Dinner, when made by my father, was one of the few times I would join him and Gertrude. This time, Henry was home from college for the weekend and we sat and ate as a family: my mother and Henry on one side of the table, and my father and I on the other. I sat to my father’s right.

That night I wasn’t particularly hungry. I was in a hurry, as I needed to attend to my errands, as my grandfather euphemistically referred to his illegal dealings. I finished only about half of my meal, then stood up. My father, without even looking at me, said in his firm but quiet way, “Sit down and finish your dinner, Ian. You’re not excused.”

“I’m not hungry, Dad, and I have some things to do. Thanks for the dinner.”

“I said sit down. I won’t tell you again.”

I sat back down, and then my mother chimed in with her two cents. “There are children in China who are starving, and they would love a meal like this.”

I was, and probably still am but to a lesser degree, a consummate smart-ass. I said, “Then send my meal to them.”

The back of my father’s right hand caught me squarely across my nose and sent me flying backward off my chair onto the floor. I had been hit in the face many times in fights, but I was always prepared. No hit to the face, before or after my father’s, ever caught me more by surprise, or caused such shock. He never struck Henry or me—ever. That task was always left to my mother, who prosecuted that endeavor with great skill and sadistic satisfaction. Henry sat there transfixed, utterly speechless at what had just happened. I have never asked him, but I have no doubt he felt some smug pleasure that his father’s golden boy had just been knocked on his ass—by his patron saint, no less.

My father turned slightly and raised himself from his seat, reached out his hand to me—which I took—and pulled me up from the floor. He handed me a napkin to wipe the blood from my nose. He then grabbed the chair and stood it upright. I was still reeling from the hit as my mother rushed over and ushered me to the sink. There, she soaked the napkin in cold water and directed me to hold it over my nose with my held tilted backward. I saw her shoot a sharp stare toward my father, but he wasn’t looking. He kept his head down and continued eating as if nothing had happened. It was then that the tug of war over to whom I held allegiance began.

My mother calmly said, “Ian, go to your room and lie down until the bleeding stops. You can finish your dinner later.”

“He’ll finish his dinner now, Gertrude,” my father said without looking up. “There’s only one dinnertime, and this is it. Ian, sit down and finish your dinner.”

There was a pause, a very long pause, to see which master I would serve. They were two people calling the same dog, waiting to see which one the dog would run to. I sat down.

My father looked at me and, with an even, low tone, spoke: “Don’t you ever speak to your mother in that manner again. Ever.”

He continued eating. I didn’t respond, because no response was necessary. Both Gertrude and I had our answers. She and father may not have had the most loving of relationships, but there was still a strong sense of generational honor—and Gertrude was still his wife.

My father and I never spoke of that incident until almost twenty years later—a year before he passed away—when I came to visit. I was sitting next to him on the couch, both of us watching a ball game. His hair had faded to auburn with streaks of gray, but his mustache remained fiery red. He was still a handsome guy. As much as I enjoyed being with him, I wasn’t smiling this time. He had a sixth sense that I wanted to say something. My father picked up the remote, pointed it at the TV to turn it off, and lit up another Lucky Strike.

“What’s on your mind, Ian?”

I thought about playing stupid and just saying “Nothing.” But I knew he wouldn’t believe it. Besides, the man deserved the truth, especially after all the hell I put him through when I was younger. “Do you remember when you hit me at the dinner table?”

He took a drag on his cigarette. “Yes, I remember. What about it?”

“Well … I just wanted to say that I’m sorry for the way I behaved and spoke to Mom, that’s all.” I was hoping for an apology in return—something that would show me how he felt about striking me.

Instead he put down his cigarette, looked straight into my eyes, and said, “It took you long enough, but that apology is owed to your mother, not me.” With that said, he turned away, picked up his cigarette, and clicked the TV back on. I should already have known how he felt, because of a discussion I overheard about fifteen years earlier. I just wasn’t as smart or insightful as I thought, and didn’t connect the dots.

The summer after I turned eighteen I was arrested for stealing a car. It wasn’t the first car I stole, nor was it the first time I disappointed my father, but it was the first as an adult rather than a juvenile. The judge gave me a choice of either four years in the military—at the height of the Vietnam war no less—or four years in the county prison. If I served honorably, my record would be expunged. If I went to prison, I would have a record forever. What a choice—either possibly dying in Vietnam, or living with a record. Both my father and grandfather—for whom I decided to no longer work, after an irate customer, during one of our collections, caught me in the head with a bat causing a two-inch gash which required a dozen or so stitches—convinced me the military was the better of two evils. I joined the Navy.

Before I acted on that decision, I came home earlier than usual for one of my father’s weekend dinners. I was always hungry. Running numbers, fighting and collecting bad debts from deadbeat customers will do that. My parents were in the kitchen and didn’t hear me come in. I could barely make out the conversation as they were talking softly, but something told me it was one which I didn’t want to walk into. I stayed in the dining room, but still in earshot for the last part of the exchange.

“When are you going to get rid of the blue mixing bowl, Larry? It’s so chipped, and it’s not like we can’t afford a better one. And speaking of damaged goods,” my mother sanctimoniously stated, “I can’t wait for Ian to leave. Perhaps then we’ll have some peace knowing that the next knock on the door won’t be the police.”

I peeked around the corner and saw my father turn toward my mother to address her question. “You’re right, Gertrude. This bowl is a piece of shit. But even damaged goods still have value and purpose.” His response was a culmination of all the death and misery he had seen and experienced in his life. Silence from my mother. My father had made his point, but I didn’t make the connection.

He reinforced those feelings later when he was the only one to write or visit me, while I was recuperating for four months in a Hawaiian hospital from wounds I suffered in ’Nam. My river boat was the sole target of an ambush while on a classified mission with two other boats. I was the only survivor. Not one call, letter, or visit from Gertrude or Henry; just my father. And yet, I still didn’t get it. God was I dense.

It wasn’t until some five years after his death that I told my mother, in one of our rare civil conversations, that I had apologized to my father. I then, finally and formally, apologized to her for my comment. She thanked me, but what she said next was yet another bat to my head. “I never saw your father cry, but he cried that night in bed. Your father never forgave himself for hitting you, Ian. As you know, your father was a man of few words, much to my chagrin. But I cannot tell you how many times, right up until his death, for no apparent reason at all, he would blurt out: ‘I should never have lost my temper and hit him, Gertrude. He didn’t deserve to be treated that way.’ Through all of the disappointments and heartaches, he always loved you, Ian. Always.” This time…this time, I finally got it. But I didn’t feel relieved or vindicated. I felt repentant.

Given the nature of my relationship with my mother, I have often wondered if she told me to assuage my torment, or to add salt to that open wound. I would like to think it was the former, but believe it was the latter.

 

A few days after that last stormy conversation with Dori—in spite of her protests, in spite of my attorney’s advice—I stopped at the old house. It was night, and there was a single light on in the living room. I walked straight to the kitchen, also illuminated, but only by the light under the range hood. I stopped for a moment, fully expecting to see my father eating his dinner. That should never have happened, I thought.

Over the stove, behind the cupboard door, sat the blue bowl. I needed something in which to carry it—something inconspicuous. I spotted a large brown bag—the kind the grocery stores still offer as a choice between paper or plastic—and promptly put the bowl into it. Then I threw in a couple of other items and quickly left, hoping none of the spying neighbors had ratted me out to my brother or the police. Driving to my new apartment I felt relief and satisfaction—like someone who just rescued a hostage without being spotted or apprehended.

I parked the car and opened the passenger door to retrieve my backpack and the brown bag lying on the front seat. After slinging the backpack over my left shoulder, I grabbed the bag with my right hand. That blue bowl, that old blue bowl with the weight of all of its memories, was too much for the bag. Before I could place it on the ground so I could shut the door there was a tear, a clumsy attempt to grab the bag, and then a sickening crack as it hit the sidewalk. I wasn’t sure if the sound came from my heart or the bowl. I stood there for a few moments in somber shock, trying to comprehend what had just happened. Then I cradled the bag, now full of my shattered plans, in my arms, and raced up the stairs to my second floor apartment, as if it were a dying patient I was attempting to get into the emergency room before it expired.

Five pieces. All clean breaks. I spread out a dish towel and carefully placed the pieces onto it. I stared at it, willing it to heal itself. What have I done?

I walked to the den, sat down in my lounger, lit a cigarette. It was about the time I usually called Dori, but we hadn’t spoken, or even texted each other, since that last tearful call two days earlier. Do I tell her what really happened, or just put on a happy face and say nothing? I decided I had to tell her the truth. She would find out sooner rather than later. Besides, Dori had become my confidante, and I didn’t want the relationship to be encumbered by lies or omissions of the truth. I had to walk into that minefield.

“Hi, Ian. Funny you should call.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because I was about to call you. I wanted to apologize for the way I went off on you the last call.”

“No apology necessary, sweetheart. Everything you said was true. I’m sorry I was such a rock head. But thanks just the same.”

“How was your day?”

“Work was fine, but I need to tell you what happened after work.” Stepping into the unknown, I recounted all of it. “I never should have put the bowl on the bottom. That was stupid.”

I hoped to garner some sympathy. Instead, there was dead silence on Dori’s end. I was now in the center of that field of explosives, and saw no clear path by which to extricate myself safely. When Dori finally spoke, the whole field started to explode around me. She made no attempt to hide her anger.

“No, Ian … stupid was you entering the house. The bowl didn’t break because of your stupidity. It broke because of your arrogance.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“It means just what I said, you arrogant, selfish, son of a bitch. All you thought of was yourself. You really didn’t give a shit about the bowl, or you would have taken better care to make sure it was protected. And you certainly didn’t consider my feelings. You just wanted to stick your finger in your brother’s and mother’s collective eye to say, ‘See? I can enter the house when I damn well feel like it and take what I want.’”

“That’s not.…”

“Shut the hell up, Ian. I’m not through.”

I felt like I was back in ’Nam, in the middle of a horrific firefight with no ammunition. That minefield was tearing me apart. Why on earth did I ever enter it?

“I’ll give you credit, Ian. You’ve been in some tough spots in your life and always managed to come through on the plus side. But that didn’t make you stronger, or more humble, confident, or thankful. It made you cynical and arrogant. What is it you always said? ‘I’ve done so much, with so little, for so long, that I now believe I can do the impossible with absolutely nothing, forever.’ I used to think that was cute and clever, and, in some way, I admired you for your strength of character and tenacity. Now I see it for what it really is, for what you really are—a spoiled, arrogant child who can’t stand to have things not go his way. I know you had to repeat that mantra to keep you going, but you’ve said that bullshit line for so long, you actually started to believe it! And that’s what really scares the shit out of me.”

The tears started to come through the phone again. “I thought I was starting to really know you. But I now realize that’s not possible, because you don’t even know yourself. Knowing you is like attempting to put your arms around fog. Get a grip, Ian. And when you can admit what you’ve really become, then maybe, just maybe, you and I can have a relationship that’s built on something more stable than delusions of grandeur. I gotta go.” She hung up.

Dori was right…again. I still wasn’t connecting the dots. Had the bowl meant that much to me, I not only would have taken greater care when I transported it, I would have taken it when I moved. But the bowl did have meaning to me; it connected me to my father—the one parent who loved me unconditionally. I did the right thing, but for the wrong reason. It wasn’t the first time.

I volunteered—yes volunteered—for combat duty in Vietnam, even though I had already graduated from Submarine School and was attending the Navy’s advanced communication courses. And not for some patriotic reason, but because Mikey—my best friend and accomplice in my youthful, nefarious enterprises—who enlisted as a Marine, was killed halfway through his Vietnam tour. I wanted to avenge his death. After I recovered from my wounds, I served five more years on submarines. Again, not because I wanted to serve my country or because I had a great love of working in the depths of the sea, but because I was doing something most people didn’t have the balls to do, and it also gave me the time I needed to hide from the world and recover emotionally from ’Nam.

The right things, for the wrong reasons. The story of my life. Dori knew what I had done, but she didn’t know why I had done them. She was on the cusp of understanding it all, and that scared the hell out of me.

 

Several days after that last call from Dori, I confided to a friend at work all that had gone down. Within earshot was a young girl working part-time while she attended graduate school. Though she had been there about a week, I had never made the attempt to introduce myself—a hangover habit from my days in the Navy, especially Vietnam.

While on a smoke break a couple of days later, she came over and introduced herself to me, and asked if we could talk. I was expecting her to ask me about work and how she could do her job better. Instead, she hesitated for a moment and then sheepishly said, “I overheard your conversation with Alex.”

I stared at her and remained silent, not knowing where this conversation was going. She continued: “I studied in Japan during my junior year in college, and became fascinated by the people, their history and culture. My graduate work is an extension of that experience.”

“That’s interesting, Bailey, and I wish you well in your studies. But what does any of that have to do with me?”

Bailey responded timidly, hearing the less-than-enthusiastic tone of my voice: “I believe I have a solution for your bowl.”

“How’s that?”

“Have you ever heard of kintsugi?”

“No. What is it?”

“It’s the Japanese art of fixing broken pottery with lacquer mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum.”

“Terrific. Let me know where I can get my hands on some of those materials. For me, it’s going to be super glue.”

“But people use glue to hide the damage.”

“Precisely. Who wants to see the cracks?”

Bailey explained, “The philosophy behind kintsugi treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object—something to celebrate, rather than something to disguise. An art form, if you like. The life of an object is extended by transforming it, rather than allowing its service to end just because it’s become damaged goods.”

Damaged goods. That caught my full attention. Perhaps my father was using kintsugi intuitively: attempting to extend my life by transforming me into someone of value and purpose—not by disguising my flaws, but by having me recognize them, and understand that they, too, are a part of my history.

“Thanks for the advice, Bailey. I’ll give it serious consideration. Really.”

“You’re welcome. The bowl apparently means a great deal to you, and it deserves a better place than stuck away in a cupboard to be forgotten. I may be going out on a limb, Ian, but my guess is the bowl isn’t the only thing you want to repair.”

I could feel a small smile form on my face. “You’re a smart, intuitive young lady and wise beyond your years.” I paused briefly, then said, “We should be getting back in before they start to miss us.”

As we reached the door to our office, I stopped and turned to Bailey. “I apologize for not introducing myself earlier. Just an old, outdated, and stupid habit. I’m delighted we had the chance to chat.”

 

Several months after I moved into my apartment, I was finally unpacked and had my new place furnished and decorated. It was time to open the doors to my friends for an inaugural dinner. The apartment was ideal. I occupied the second and third floors of a completely renovated and refurbished, three-story, Victorian mansion located in what they now call The Historic District of the city. It had all the room and amenities I ever wanted. More so, it was the first place I could really call home since my divorce years earlier.

The apartment wasn’t the only thing that went through transformation. Bailey’s comment continued to gnaw at me like a river slowly, relentlessly, carving out a canyon. I still believed in my mantra, and came to the conclusion there was absolutely no reason I couldn’t transform myself. My life, my relationship with my friends and my children—and especially with Dori—depended upon it, now. I didn’t have the luxury of several thousand years. My relationship with Henry and Gertrude? Well, that would have to wait for another epiphany.

After about an hour of socializing, I ushered everyone into the dining room, which I had kept hidden behind closed doors until that moment. The spacious room with its ornate, but tasteful, woodwork was the crown jewel of the apartment. Its high ceiling was adorned by a Victorian-style chandelier in the center. Under it sat a period-appropriate cherry dining room set I found at an estate sale, which rested regally on a lush, pale oriental rug with a simple, graceful, multi-color design. The centerpiece of the room was a stately fireplace bound in exquisitely carved mahogany, capped with two mantels which framed a mirror.

As the guests were about to be seated, Suzanne—the better half of a couple I had known since before my divorce—looked at the mantel above the mirror and said with childlike wonderment, “This blue bowel, Ian. It’s so unique and beautiful. Simply elegant. I have never seen a piece of pottery decorated in such fashion. Where on earth did you find it?”

I glanced over at Dori, who gave me her crooked smile, and nodded her head, as if to say: Go ahead, Ian. Tell the story. You’ve earned it.

I put my drink down, and pushed my hands into the pockets of my pants—a tell of mine since I was a kid, when I was about to share some secret. I glanced down reflectively, then raised my head and smiled at Suzanne. “Have you ever heard of kintsugi?”

 

 

BIO

L.D. ZaneI served seven years in the Navy, which included a combat tour in Vietnam on river boats, and five years aboard nuclear-powered, Fast Attack submarines. At 65, my life is quieter now: anything would be quieter than my military venture. I am a member of the Pagoda Writers Group, and find that I’ve been devoting more and more time to my writing. I write under the pen name L.D. Zane.

Stories published: Red Fez, Solomon’s Shadow, February 2015; Indiana Voice Journal, One Out of Three, March 2015; Red Fez, River of Revenge, April 2015, Remarkable Doorways Online Literary Magazine, The Box, May 2015, and The Writing Disorder, Kintsugi, June 2015.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sarah Sarah writer

My Month in Marijuana Sales

by Sarah Sarai

 

This story begins with Camp Fire Girl Mints and ends with a puff of smoke from a tightly rolled joint. But first a word from my mother. The only movie she ever barred me from seeing was Butterfield 8. Like that was even necessary. Pollyanna with Haley Mills was released the same year, for chrissakes, and I was really young although I might have liked Psycho, also released that year, me loving suspense. Anyway, to defy my mom, my next-up sister T- dragged me to a theater on Ventura Blvd. to watch Elizabeth Taylor slink around in a black slip and drink whiskey with Laurence Harvey. Much later I fell in love with Taylor and Harvey but in the movie theater, I was bored. Bo-red.

Time passed, I became a high school senior. T-, five years old than I am, became a hippie. Our mother worked as a bookkeeper for her Christian Science church. Pop did what pops do – plied his trade and stopped off at bars. One afternoon, T-, who no longer lived at home, walked in through the back door with a key of dope. Weed. Marijuana.

Like hay, a key, or kilo, of weed is comprised of leaves, sticks, and seeds. Hay, tightly packed and bucked into the barn as a bale is identifiable in black-and-white and Technicolor. Hay sings, hay dances, hay strums. In Oklahoma, Curly courts Laurey, the ladies curtsey a ballet, curtains blow in a window flung open to a musical agrarian fantasy with no small amount of hay.

So T-, who was living in Topanga, needed money for an “illegal abortion.” I remember her saying that exact phrase. She knew of a doctor in Orange County and announced I was helping. I would love to describe myself as being pro-choice, as I am now, but really, I grappled with what to feel, said nothing, and just set up the card table. Wielding a long kitchen knife, T- began to break up the key. The thrust of the blade on the bale was fierce and satisfying – she let me at it, too. My sister measured one-ounce parcels of dope, dope is what we called it, into baggies and instructed me sell to my classmates. She had her hopes.

Let me back up. Remember Camp Fire Girl mints, those glistening dark chocolate sticks lined up like Madeline’s schoolmates in a rectangular box, beckoning with their sharp mintyocity and dark chocolateness? As a young Camp Fire Girl, say ten or eleven, I could not sell more than five boxes. I can’t explain why except that I was in that near-paralytic state which has chased me throughout this life and probably will into the next. My mom had to buy out my inventory. Seriously. If there was a Camp Fire Girl bead in salespersonship I did not earn it. Wo-he-lo, nonetheless. Wo-he-lo means peace. That’s Camp Fire Girl speak.

Flipping in time, again, to 1967 and the mandate that I sell, I was flummoxed. Eager as my sweet mother was, or maybe resigned, to shield me from life’s lessons, I did not think she would now buy up baggies of marijuana – what? – and share with the ladies in her church – no cigs, no booze, no caffeine (except for the buzz from chocolate mints). Christian Scientists were not our target market.

Although I was not friendless at school, I was not in any in-group and certainly was not the cool outsider girl who can deal pot under the bleachers. Somehow or other I sold three baggies – three ounces. One was bought by another outsider girl and two by male classmates whose appearance at my house had my parents so excited for me, they ordered pizza. One of the dope-buying classmates is now nationally respected in his field so I’ll leave it at that.

To return to my point, in Southern California in 1967 I moved three judiciously packed baggies of good dope. The Doors, Procol Harum, Sly & the Family Stone, Cream, Wilson Pickett, Jimi Hendrix, Chambers Brothers, Jefferson Airplane, Buffalo Springfield – all celebratory of the grooviness – were part of the musical score that year, and I could move only three baggies. (For the record, Aretha Franklin was queen that year.) My sister unloaded the rest and was able to do what she needed to do. When I left for college she gave me a baggie and as a precautionary warned me not to let anyone know I had it. In the middle of my first semester, I opened my dorm room door. Everyone was smoking. Let the fun begin.

I am convinced I would be a better and happier person today if I had sold more dope, or more Camp Fire Girl mints. If I had the personality that enabled me to sell. I would be more convincing, more outgoing, self-assured, able to close deals for raises or new jobs. Win over people, make new friends, be rich, be happy, be American. But I am not that person. But I’m here to tell my tale. And T-, who warned against the dangers of weed once she stopped smoking and dropping, is still here, too.

 

 

BIO

Sarah SaraiSarah Sarai’s short stories are in Gravel, Devil’s Lake, Storyglossia, Homestead Review, Fairy Tale Review, Weber Studies, Tampa Review, South Dakota Review, and other journals; her story, “The Young Orator,” was published as a chapbook and e-book by Winged City Chaps, Her poetry collection, The Future Is Happy, was published by BlazeVOX; her poems are in journals including Ascent, Boston Review, Pool Poetry, Thrush, Yew, and Threepenny Review. Links to her book reviews, poems, and stories are on her blog, My 3,000 Loving Arms. Sarah is a contributing editor for The Writing Disorder and a fiction reader at Ping Pong Literary Journal published by the Henry Miller Library. She attended grammar school and junior and senior high in the San Fernando Valley. She now lives in New York.

 

 

 

Audrey Iredale

What They Don’t Tell You About Cancer

by Audrey Iredale

 

What they don’t tell you about cancer is that some healthcare establishments may not have your best interests at heart. The solutions with the most opportunity for success in your personal situation may not be the most profitable for the medical community.

Many questions arise after discovery of a life-threatening illness. If you were diagnosed with cancer today, what would be your reaction? Who would you tell first? Would you keep it from your loved ones in an effort to shield them? If you believed your days were numbered, how would you decide to spend them?

Would you panic or approach the issue with a scientific focus and begin educating yourself about the options? Would you blindly trust doctors to select treatment for you, or would you research different methods and their statistics of success and make your own decisions? Would you look for support from your closest friends and ask for advice, or keep it quietly to yourself? You may think you know how you would react, but a life threatening diagnosis can scare you into doing things you would never contemplate otherwise. What they don’t tell you about cancer is that knowing the answers to these questions before receiving a diagnosis is critical.

I have experienced this emotional journey from the perspective of being a close relative of the patient. I have watched several people from my family succumb to cancer after conventional treatments failed to save them. Poisoning the body with toxic substances, in an attempt to eradicate cancer cells, does not appear to have a good long term success rate.

My father suffered a horrible death after receiving chemotherapy and radiation, when I was in my early twenties. I watched him disintegrate from a healthy rock of a man into a frail thin bald apparition of his former self, isolating himself and withdrawing from everything and everyone he loved. I listened to him take his last ragged breath, as I sat with him for hours that turned into days, in the V.A. hospital room on the 5th floor.

Due to the severe emotional trauma induced by the carnage I had witnessed in close proximity, I decided then and there that I would not submit to extremely invasive and damaging medical procedures if a future cancer was discovered in my body. Throughout subsequent years, I kept a constant vigil of cancer prevention measures and it remained one of my darkest fears.

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in the summer of 2014, I was only three years older than my father’s age, when his monster was discovered. It is a gut-wrenching feeling, when you hear the words. The finality of it crashes down like a boulder. I sat in the hallway outside the imaging suite, still in my hospital gown and cried, feeling more alone than I ever had in my life.

The truth of your own mortality is overwhelming. What they don’t tell you about cancer is how many extreme states of emotion you will experience, in a very short time span, and how many times you will change your mind about how to handle the situation.

I found myself faced with many difficult decisions about treatment. Medical advice sounded frighteningly familiar and ultimately unsuccessful. Traditional cancer treatments have evolved into a one-size-fits-all scenario created by a for-profit pharmaceutical industry.

“Cancer happens to other people,” you lament, “this wasn’t supposed to happen to me.” This wasn’t part of the script in the epic adventure of your life. All plans must change, all dreams are forfeited. Your world will never be the same again.

The primary concerns, flooding your mind, will be of your children and who will look after them and champion them after you are gone. Even if they are grown up, with children of their own, they were not supposed to be obliged to continue without your guidance and assistance, at least not at this early stage of the game. The sadness is suffocating.

You firmly instruct your spouse, (through your hiccups and tears) of his vital responsibility to watch over them and support them in your absence. Then you begin to cry uncontrollably, when you think of him, your best friend, who will be left buried in so much debt after you are gone that recovery will be near impossible, and you feel ridiculously helpless.   You have already seen what happens to people as they endure mainstream cancer treatment procedures. You fear that soon, you will no longer be capable of doing physically demanding work. You wonder if, in the near future, you will be able to maintain employment at all.

Suddenly the realization hits that all future financial projects and expenditures must be of the sort he can pay for and maintain by himself. You begin to initiate estate planning procedures. You explain that now, he must be organized and begin doing more things for himself.

“Yes dear,” he chirps, rolling his eyes. He drops his shirt and socks on the floor beside the chair and leaving his dirty dishes on the table, shuffles off to watch Family Guy on Netflix.

You show him where your journal files are kept, in the computer. You tell him that your oldest daughter is to take possession of your data archives and millions of digital photos.

Then you begin to look at your single friends and imagine planning for your own replacement. Laughing, you tell him, he will be “given to Cindy, or Debbie, or Kathy,” whomever you have deemed worthy to step into your shoes and complement his life.

“But don’t I get to try her out first?” he laughs, with a playful jab.

“Not ‘till I am gone,” you frown, wondering if it is such a good idea after all.

There is a critical need to shed light on some of the events that transpire in the lives of real people who are living with cancer. Many of my own questions went unanswered due to the lack of explicit information available to the general public. I demanded graphic details from medical providers, regarding what would or could happen, in every imaginable scenario. I insisted on being provided with a photograph of the monster upon removal. A full color, life sized print of the primary tumor was produced and contributed by the surgeon.

However, some of the treatment details were not explained, such as how it really feels when lymph nodes have been removed and your arm fills up with painful fluid, all the way to your wrist, or to lose underarm sensation due to intercostobrachial nerve damage, making it difficult or even dangerous to shave.

Drawing on the statistics I have seen in my own personal life, I made the extremely difficult decision to reject recommended cancer therapies. It became my primary focus to survive despite the overwhelming odds. I decided if my time on this earth was greatly reduced, I did not want to spend it in my bed, or crawling to the toilet bowl to puke. Cleaning up great chunks of my hair from the shower floor, did not sound attractive. I did not want the elation of six months of remission, followed by the heartbreak of an aggressive onslaught of secondary cancer, brought on by the very radiation used to destroy the remnants of the primary tumor. As a singer and photographer, I could not afford cataracts and vocal cord damage to plague my final hours no matter how brief they may prove to be.

Already possessing halfway decent research skills, and an impressive arsenal of mental data, regarding nutrition, gained by years of chasing recovery from an emotional eating disorder, I was armed with the necessary tools. Medical personnel spewing frightening statistics from a tunnel-vision perspective, failed to persuade me to submit to their latest forms of torture and permanent mutilation. The surgeon righteously insisted that she must administer some tough-love regarding her recommendation of endocrine therapy and post-surgical radiation. Ultimately, against medical advice, I refused all of the above in favor of less-invasive holistic medicine.

Futile negotiations commenced with the insurance company to allow coverage for guidance from a naturopathic physician, but I stood my ground and paid out of pocket for the support and validation that told me I was indeed on the right path. Google and I burned the midnight oil for many hours, scouring experimental alternative-healing and specifically targeted nutrition solutions.

I reflected upon the despised biology course from the past college semester, for knowledge of cell function, mutations and relationships between protein and enzymes. Because cancer cells are a mutation, they do not have the capability of adapting to using fat for fuel. Therefore they can be forced to commit programmed cell-death, by replacing all or most carbohydrates with high quality fats and moderate proteins.

What they don’t tell you about cancer is that it doesn’t just happen to one person, it happens to whole families. Your significant other, or persons close to you, may disagree with your treatment choices.

“You should not rule out western medicine,” advises a good friend, and senior histologist of 30 years.

“I’ll support whatever choice you make,” promises your husband, but when he hears your decision, the fear in his eyes is unmistakable.

“So you’re just going to DIE!” your daughter shrieks, “Is that it? Then WHAT are the rest of us supposed to do? YOU are the mastermind! YOU are supposed to live ’till you are eighty-something, like HER!” pointing to her grandmother.

“Well, considering that no one listens to me most of the time anyway, I think you will all be fine,” you accuse.

“Well, you’re going to need chemotherapy and radiation and your hair will fall out, but maybe it won’t be so bad,” warns your Aunt, matter of factly.

We’ll see about that.

Self pity and reclusive tendencies beckon. Some days after work, it is unclear if you are capable of climbing the stairs to your bedroom. You are unable sleep for more than a few hours before awakening with emotional dread or some new physical symptom, whether imagined or legitimate. The mood swings are vicious and agonizing.

“I can’t do this anymore!” you whimper to your girlfriend, in full melt-down mode after work one afternoon, “Nobody cares if I am dying! And you better not tell anyone at work I am sick, because I could lose my job, if they think I will be a flake and not show up!”

“I care,” she corrects, “you are just hungry and too afraid to eat.”

“You’re right, I want to eat an entire extra cheese pizza, WITH crust, but I can’t,” you admit, “so I am going to bed.”

She stands by you, no matter how rude you have been to her.

“If we can have solar panels installed at no cost to us, we should do it for the green impact,” admonishes the husband.

“What do I care about the planet? I’m dying and nobody cares about helping me! I cannot deal with any more stress. I will not tolerate construction crews crawling all over this house!” you snap.

“I hear ya,” he agrees.

“I don’t even want to go to work anymore,” you blurt, “what’s the point anyway?”

“Then don’t go,” he soothes, shrugging.

You get a little bit of rest and things look different in the morning. You continue working, but the accelerated fatigue at the end of the day is frightening.

“Let’s buy new furniture!” you squeal, abruptly opening the garage door to startle your husband into dropping a wrench. “We could max out the rest of the credit cards, because you will have to file bankruptcy anyway, after I’m dead!”

“Ok, whatever you want dear,” he grins.

Five minutes later you are more interested in figuring out how to pay the latest stack of hospital bills and deciding whose feet are small enough to fit into your outrageously extravagant shoe collection, in case the monster ultimately returns in triumph.

What they don’t tell you about cancer is that the rest of your life continues, regardless of your physical illness or your mental state, and you must find a way to compartmentalize the emotions and move forward. No matter how healthy you feel right now, or how encouraging your latest test results, evil could be stalking you around the next corner. You will never be free from the shadow.

Every twinge of pain, every headache, every symptom of any kind strikes a note of terror in anticipation of the monster’s return. The horror of your own mortality is a powerful incentive for change. Efficiency of familiar crutches and comfort mechanisms fade in the face of your predicament. The fact that it is “five o’ clock somewhere” loses its delicious meaning. You can no longer have a Margarita at the end of a stressful day because your body will metabolize the alcohol as sugar and may feed stray cancer cells. You are obliged to eat cold meals at work because using the microwave would compromise the nutritional value of the food, by changing the shape of the proteins.

Removing as many carbohydrates from your diet, as is possible in a first world setting, eliminates the majority of food cravings. Eventually you begin to lose interest in meals, because most seem to contain one luxury or another that you can no longer afford. You find yourself unable to consume enough calories to support your daily activities. Eating for survival rather than entertainment dominates reality.

Supplements of raw plant-based protein shakes and concentrated whole-food capsules replace many meals and snacks. Your habits have undergone a drastic makeover. Blood work reveals astounding results. Your cholesterol is down 30 points and tests show no evidence of disease. You may be healthier than you have been in your entire life, as long as you can stay one step ahead of the monster’s encore.

The distractions of time-consuming guilt-induced activities disperse as survival takes priority.   The weight melts off you by the hour and when you can find energy, you jubilantly dig into the cavernous depths of your closet, finding long lost treasures of clothing you haven’t been able to wear in decades. People remark how good you look.

At what cost?

The relief is exhilarating; the renewed hope intoxicating. You decide to document your journey in a blog, utilizing that abandoned domain you bought last year. The posts will contain all the graphic details you had been denied about this most terrifying disease. You will provide others with answers to some of the questions about physical symptoms, making difficult decisions, dealing with family and friends and all the emotional issues that happen along the way.

If you survive five years or more, the alternative treatments you have selected will be immortalized for those who choose to follow. If you do not live to tell the tale, at least you will have illuminated critical aspects for those behind you on the path.

What they don’t tell you about cancer is that nothing has really changed. We are all dying from the day we are born and none of us know how long we may dance on this planet. Everyone must seize the opportunity to live in the present and not waste a minute feeling sorry for ourselves. Maybe this year could be the best yet?

 

NOTE: Inspiration for this article is credited to Philip Gerard for his essay, “What They Don’t Tell You About Hurricanes.” (from Moore, Dinty W. The Truth of the Matter. NY: Pearson Longman, 2007. pp 151-156.

 

Works Cited

Campbell, N. Simon, E. Reece, J. Dickey, J. Campbell Biology Concepts & Connections, Seventh Edition. Boston MA: Pearson Education, 2007.

Mercola, Joseph. Mercola.com Take Control of your Health. 16 June 2013. 06 11 2014 <http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2013/06/16/ketogenic-diet-benefits.aspx>.

Moore, Dinty. The Truth of the Matter. New York: Pearson Longman, 2007.

 

 

BIO

Audrey IredaleAudrey Iredale lives in the beautiful Sonoran Desert city of Phoenix, Arizona, with her husband and three precious rescued kitties. They have three daughters and two grandchildren. She studied Language Arts at community colleges in California and Arizona and graduated Phi Theta Kappa with a 4.0 GPA. She has been writing and singing since childhood and works in technology manufacturing.

http://audreyiredale.weebly.com/

 

Paul Garson author

The Twice Fought War: Ethiopia 1935-1945

by Paul Garson

All photos and documents from author’s collection

 

Ethiopia Map 1935

In the early 1930s Italian Colonial aspirations included much of The Horn of Africa including Libya, Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia.

 

Once upon a time there was a country, sometimes known (in Europe) as Abyssinia, other times as Ethiopia. Or, if you were Italian and drawing maps of the continent of Africa for future conquests … Etiopia. In addition Ethiopia was a predominantly ancient Christian country tracing that history back to the first century A.D. In 330 A.D. Christianity was declared the state religion and eventually the only region of Africa to survive as such following the expansion of Islam in the area. Some even claimed it was the secret hiding place of the Ark of the Covenant.

 

mounted  warrior 1898

1890 Illustration – Mounted Ethiopian Warrior
The image appeared on an Italian pharmaceutical company’s advertising card printed in the 1930s. Although he still carries a shield, the soldier also shoulders a modern military rifle rather than the vintage flintlocks relied upon by the majority of his countrymen.

In 1906, the same year that Einstein set forth his Theory of Relatively that changed the face of science and the Great San Francisco earthquake changed the face that city, Ethiopia was granted its internationally recognized independence with Great Britain, France and Italy among those signing the historic document.  But within five years Italy would invade nearby Libya and begin carving out chunks of northern Africa for its colonies.  As the European powers began devouring African resources, Ethiopia still managed to survive intact, and furthermore, in 1923 was recognized by the League of Nations (the precursor to the United Nations) as a full-fledged member of that international community.

 

ethiopia Sellasie coin 1937

1937 – Coinage and Carnage
Along with the image of Emperor Selassie, his name appears in the abugida script form of Amharic, the country’s national language, and the second most-spoken Semitic language worldwide after Arabic.

* * *

While it went through a period of various potentates as rulers, a new leader appeared that would put Ethiopia firmly back on the world map. The face of Emperor Haile Selassie appeared on the November 3rd, 1930 cover of TIME Magazine. His titles included “King of Kings, Conquering Lion of Judah and Elect of God.” The text of the story stated, “Certainly the new Emperor is the greatest Abyssinian ruler of modern times.” That bit of hyperbole proved prophetic. TIME again placed him on its cover on January 6, 1936 selecting him as “Man of the Year for 1935” for his courageous efforts defending his country from the invasions launched by Italy’s fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.

 

ethiopia 225th departs for Ethiopia 1935

Banner of War
Standing by their battle flag, officers of the 225th Infantry Regiment of the 14th Italian Expeditionary Force prepare to depart for East Africa in 1935.

* * *

The Italo-Ethiopian War of 1935, lasting 17 months, would presage the European war that would erupt in 1939, and as such could be seen as one of the sparks that ignited that conflagration.

Since Mussolini dreamed of recreating the glory of the Roman Empire, he needed colonies to expand fascist Italy along with his own ego, thus Ethiopia became his target. The rest of Europe shrugged their shoulders for the most part. The attitude is summed up by the following quote from discussions at the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs on October 3, 1935, the eve of Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia.  “One can see now how thoughtless it was of the League of Nations to admit Ethiopia, a country which does not deserve other nations risking a war to protect it.”

As the war ground on, the modern Italian forces found themselves generally victorious, but on December 22, 1935, after Ethiopian troops managed to repulse an Italian attack, General Rodolfo Graziani launched airborne gas warfare including bombings on January 10 that killed thousands of Ethiopians trying to escape Italian advances, more gas attacks following in March. An estimated 300-500 tons of mustard gas were deployed, personally authorized by Mussolini along with the use of flamethrowers.

 

son and father warriors 1935 Harar

October 1935 – Mobilization in Harar, Ethiopia
Responding to Emperor Haile Selassie’s call for the defense of their country, an Ethiopian warrior and his young son prepar to leave for war, the boy acting as his father’s “squire” and carrying his rifle and gear. Like most of the soldiers facing the Italians, both go barefoot into battle.

* * *

On May 5, Italian General Badoglio and his troops triumphantly entered the capital of Addis Ababa. Eventually some 150,000 Italians would occupy Ethiopia, but the occupiers found themselves tasked with controlling over 1,000,000 sq. kilometers of some of the harshest topography in the world and home to some of the most tenacious and courageous peoples, many of whom joined in a protracted guerilla war.

Initially official international response was minimal. The only country to protest the Italian aggression and occupation was Mexico. A year later, five other countries…China, New Zealand, the Republic of Spain (fighting its own civil war against Fascism), the U.S. and U.S.S.R. were the only nations not to recognize Italy’ right of control over Ethiopia. However by 1940 only Stalin’s Russia recognized Selassie as the rightful leader, since at the time and prior to the isolationist leaning U.S. entry into WWII, America was considering acknowledging Ethiopia as part of the Italian empire.

 

ethiopia officer telegraph 1935

Ethiopian Royal Guard Soldier
Still bearing the original tag affixed to an album photo in 1935,  an officer of the Telegraph Corp is shown in his dress uniform complete with lion fur fringed epaulets and cap. Unfortunately the country’s communication system was such that the military had in most part to rely on runners and there was but one field telephone in service.

* * *

On June 30, 1936, after Italian forces occupied Addis Ababa forcing him into exile, Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie made a personal and electrifying appeal to the League of Nations which had convened in Geneva, Switzerland. His speech, warning of the threat of Fascism, was heckled by the Italian representatives, but brought him into the world spotlight as a champion of his people and an inspirational call to defend the weak against the violently strong. His statements included the following prophetic warning:

“If a strong government finds it can destroy a weak people, then the hour has struck for that weak people to appeal to the League of Nations to give judgment in all freedom. God and history will remember your judgment. It is us today. It will be you tomorrow.”

His words went unheeded, the League taking no action. On February 19-21, 1937 Addis Ababa was the scene of a bloody massacre of some 10,000 civilians including half the younger, educated population, shot, beheaded, and bayonetted by Italian troops with the pretext being an attempted and failed assassination attempt against Marshal Rodolfo Graziani the Viceroy and Governor General of Italian East Africa. It was one of the largest mass murders prior to the start of WWII.

 

ethiopia hanging

Souvenir Photo
An Italian soldier snapped this image of blindfolded Ethiopians as well as his pith helmet wearing comrades during one of countless public executions.

* * *

The Italians also operated notorious prisons, including Nokra located on an island on the Red Sea where prisoners suffered a mortality rate of 58%. The general Fascist attitude toward their colonial subjects was summed up by Gen. Badoglio when he stated, “the whole population of Cyrenaica should perish.”

In another instance, the Italian commander Graziani, employing Somali and Libyan mercenaries along with his Italian troops, successfully launched the decisive battle against the Ethiopian resistance on the Southern Front in mid-April 1936. His summary report of the victory indicated some 650 Italian casualties while the numbers exceeded several thousand Ethiopians. He commented, “Few prisoners as is the custom of Libyan troops.” While under Italian command who voiced no disapproval, the Libyans implemented their own “total war.”

Conquering Italian Troops 1937

axis Mussolini oct 1943

1937 Photo -Conquering Italian troops in High Spirits

Eventually an estimated 500,000 Ethiopians died as the result of Italy’s invasion and occupation, a genocidal policy that history relegated to its dusty back pages.

Italy would continue to control Ethiopia while the world lurched toward WWII. Then on June 10, 1940 Mussolini decided to enter the World War on Hitler’s side in order to share in the spoils. His forces attacked France via the western Alps, but suffered from poor leadership and freezing temperatures, obsolete weapons, without even adequate cooking pots or winter clothing. In the ensuing border area battles, the French sustained 40 killed, 84 wounded, 150 missing. The Italians lost 631 killed, 2,361 wounded and 600 missing not to mention some 2000 cases of frostbite. Later in Greece, Italian forces were driven back again, in this case losing some 14,000 dead and 25,000 missing. Hitler was called upon  to rescue his Italian allies by sending in his own troops and as a result did not meet his original schedule for attacking the Soviet Union, losing precious time, and perhaps the war in Russia and the War itself.

 

ethiopia Selassie man Oerlikon 1935

Attack on Dessie – Emperor Selassie Fights Back
The photo shows the Emperor at the controls of a Swedish made Oerlikon anti-aircraft gun. While the scene appears posed, it recreates an actual event. After learning that Selassie would be inside the vacated Italian consulate building, the Italians dropped bombs on the city, causing moderate damage and creating panic in the civilian population who had never experience aerial bombardment. The Emperor went unscathed while the bombing of civilians brought international attention.

* * *

In late January 1941, British and its Commonwealth troops (Indian, Nigerian, Ghanaian, South African, East African), launched attacks from bases in Sudan and Kenya against Italian-occupied Eritrea and Somaliland. By mid-February, 1941, Italian troops in Eritrea had sought sanctuary in the rugged mountains, for the most leaving their outposts in the hands of the Allies. By late March, German and Italian forces were evacuating by ship from Eritrea as British forces continued their successful operations against them. In one of the large engagements fought at the Battle of Keren involving tanks and infantry, the British recorded 536 killed, 3229 wounded while Italian casualties totalled some 6500.

On April 1, the Eritrean capital city of Asmara surrendered as an open city, the Allies collecting 5,000 Italian prisoners, the remaining forces making an effort to escape back into Ethiopia. By April 4th, Italian troops had fled the capital of Addis Ababa under threat of imminent capture by British forces who shortly took the city without opposition. On May 5, Ethiopia’s Haile Selassie made an historic return to the capital, marking to the day that he had been forced to flee Italian forces five years previously.

By May 16, Amba Alagi, the last major Italian stronghold in Ethiopia, lacking drinking water and counting nearly 290,000 casualties, began surrender negotiations. On May 17, 1941, Duke Aosta, the Viceroy of Italian East Africa, surrendered to the British followed on November 27 by the surrender of General Nasi, thus effectively ending Italian control of the area although some Italian guerrilla resistance continued until Italy surrendered in 1943, thus officially ending the Italian occupation of Ethiopia. It was Gen. Badoglio, the conqueror of the Ethiopians, who replaced Mussolini as Prime Minister after the dictator’s fall from power. Badoglio then surrendered Italy to the Allies.

Italian forces in East Africa would be captured en mass by Allied forces and during fighting on the Eastern Front alongside their German allies 87, 795 Italian personnel were killed or MIA, another 35,000 wounded. Over the ensuing decades, Italy was only able to repatriate the remains of 10,542 of its soldiers from the Russian Front, and of those only 2,799 were identified.

 

victory celebration

Selassie portrait

Victory Celebration
A rare private snapshot shows Emperor Haile Selassie standing on the main street of Addis Ababa on May 5, 1941, the day of his return to the liberated capital. The roadway is lined with smiling troops while two young riflemen aim for the cameraman. Today, May 5 is still celebrated as “Ethiopian Patriots’ Victory Day.”

temporary comrades

Temporary Comrades-in-Arms
The body language of an Italian Alpini trooper and a German Army corporal standing at their guard post could be interpreted as reflecting the differences between their individual and national personalities.

* * *

After the overthrow of Mussolini and as a result of the Armistice of Cassibile on September 8, 1943, Italy was split between the pro-fascist forces allied with Nazi Germany and anti-Fascist forces with Allied allegiances. The Germans exacted brutal reprisals against the Italians they saw as traitors, executing thousands and sending thousands more into slave labor.
Italy paid the price in blood, nearly a quarter million of its military killed and another 150,000 civilians perishing, a significant percentage caused by its former German ally.

1948: Aftermath
War crimes charges against Fascist Italy, while assaulting pre-WWII Ethiopia and during the war in Greece and Yugoslavia, were never officially recognized or prosecuted as the both the post-war Italian government and the Allies preferred to ignore them—in fact, actively denying and covering them up since they were now more concerned with the threat of the Communist Party in Italy. However, Marshal Rodolfo Graziani, late Italian ruler of Ethiopia, was sentenced in 1948 to 19 years in prison for his collaboration with the Nazi Party. Although he only served four months. (He later became active in a neo-fascist party, dying of natural causes in 1955 at age 72. Public money funded a monument to him in 2012.)

 

 

BIO

Paul Garson SelfiePaul Garson lives and writes in Los Angeles, his articles regularly appearing in a variety of national and international periodicals. A graduate of the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars and USC Media Program, he has taught university composition and writing courses and served as staff Editor at several motorsport consumer magazines as well as penned two produced screenplays. Many of his features include his own photography, while his current book publications relate to his “photo-archeological” efforts relating to the history of WWII in Europe, through rare original photos collected from more than 20 countries. Links to the books can be found on Amazon.com. More info at www.paulgarsonproductions.com or via paulgarson@aol.com

 

 

Cliff May House

Designer of the Dream:
Cliff May and the California Ranch House

by Mary A. van Balgooy

 Cliff May

In 1934, Architectural Digest published another edition presenting beautiful black-and-white photographs of elegant houses and imposing buildings by prominent southern California architects. This particular issue included works by Gordon B. Kaufmann, designer of buildings such as the Athenaeum at the California Institute of Technology (1930), Denison Library at Scripps College (1930), and the Times Mirror Building in Los Angeles (1931-1935); George Washington Smith, renowned for his Spanish colonial revival style homes in and around Santa Barbara, Bel Air and Pasadena; and Wallace Neff, noted for his Spanish colonial revival houses in Bel Air and the Pasadena area.1 In addition to these well-known architects, the magazine also featured a house designed by Cliff May, who had no architectural training and little building experience. Moreover, the home included in this publication was only the second house May had designed and built. But it would mark the beginning of a long and prolific architectural career for May. When he died in 1989 at the age of eighty-one, he had designed numerous commercial buildings, over one thousand custom homes, and several tract house plans resulting in more than eighteen thousand tract houses.2 But out of all of his work, this southern California native is best known and remembered for developing the suburban dream home of the 1940s and 1950s—the California ranch house.

Cliff May Sunset office

Cliff May’s family background and childhood greatly influenced his work. Born to Beatrice Magee and Charles Clifford May in 1908 in San Diego, May was a sixth-generation Californian through his mother, a descendent of the distinguished Estudillo and de Pedrorena families of San Diego. Both families not only had served in a number of important military, political, economic, and social positions under Spanish, Mexican, and American rule, but also had owned several large ranchos in present-day San Diego and Riverside counties. In addition, they had owned land in Old Town San Diego and it is here that they had built their main residences: Casa de Estudillo and Casa de Pedrorena. Built after 1845, Casa de Pedrorena was one of the first frame houses in Old Town. Casa de Estudillo, on the other hand, was constructed almost twenty years earlier as a one-story, U-shaped adobe house that was common in southern California throughout most of the nineteenth century. By the twentieth century both families’ vast ranchos had disappeared and only their town houses had survived.3 Furthermore, the Estudillo House was restored as a museum in 1910 and publicized as “Ramona’s Marriage Place,” becoming part of the growing movement to preserve the romance of California’s rancho days.4 Thus, as the young May grew up in San Diego he could easily visit the former houses of his California ancestors.

May became familiar with two other nineteenth-century ranch houses during his youth, too. His aunt, Jane Magee, operated a lima bean farm on Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores in Oceanside. Once belonging to Pío Pico and his brother, Andrés, the rancho included two houses by the time the Magee family leased the property in the 1880s: the Rancho Santa Margarita and Las Flores Adobe. Rancho Santa Margarita, built in succession over time in the nineteenth century, is a traditional U-shaped adobe house while the Las Flores Adobe, built after 1865, is in the Monterey style. It was on this farm that May spent many summers with his aunt living in the Las Flores Adobe and next to the Rancho Santa Margarita.5 As seen in May’s writings and designs, these two ranch houses in addition to the Estudillo House would profoundly shape his ideas on the ranch house of the twentieth century.

Cliff May sign

Even though May excelled in music as a pianist and saxophonist, he followed his father’s wishes and in 1929 enrolled at San Diego State College as a business major. However, he left college after two years primarily because of the economic realities of the Great Depression and “to be on his own.”6 To support himself, May began to design and build furniture, a trade he learned as a young man from his parents’ neighbors, the Styris family, who were professional furniture makers.7

May designed his furniture in the latest style of the 1920s: Monterey. Monterey was originally created by Frank Mason and his son George for the Los Angeles-based, home-furnishing company, Barker Brothers. Influenced by the Arts and Crafts Movement, early forms of Monterey (1929-1932) are similar to Mission-style furniture except that Monterey is finished with paint, hand-painted flowers, California tile, wrought-iron strapping, and rope decoration.8

To sell his work as well as obtain commissions, May placed his furniture in a new house for sale. When the house sold in part because of the furniture, May installed his furniture into another new house on the market and to his delight that house quickly sold, too. After experiencing such admiration for his furniture, May decided to design and build a house himself and worked out an agreement with real estate developer and his future father-in-law, Roy C. Lichty.9 Lichty, who owned several lots in San Diego that he could not readily sell because of the Great Depression, agreed to put up land and money for May to build a house. In return, May would provide the labor and if the house sold, they would split the profits in half.10 May drew up the plans and with the help of a master carpenter built his first house in 1932 in Talmadge Park, San Diego.11 Filled with May’s handcrafted Monterey furniture, the house sold for $9,500 to Colonel Arthur J. O’Leary.12

Cliff May house

May built his second house in 1933 with financial backing from a local grading contractor, O. U. Miracle.13 The house sold for $9,500 to Captain William Lindstrom.14 A year later, Architectural Digest featured the Lindstrom’s house in its 1934 issue. For a young man in his twenties, May was beginning to enjoy phenomenal success as a builder of houses. In fact, soon after the Lindstrom house appeared in Architectural Digest, other magazines featured May’s houses including American Home, California Arts & Architecture, and Sunset.15

By 1937 May had constructed over fifty houses and several non-residential buildings in the San Diego area.16 His early houses were very much based on the nineteenth-century ranch houses he had come to know in his childhood. Generally, May designed his houses as asymmetrical, one-story dwellings with a low-pitched roof and wide overhanging eaves. One room deep, it was crucial that the house take an L- or U-shaped configuration to form a patio or courtyard in the back so that the rooms of the ranch house faced or opened into these areas. Like the California adobes of the nineteenth century, May’s houses did not include an interior hallway. Instead an exterior corredor or covered veranda served as the primary hallway of the house. May also designed his houses so that they presented a blank façade to the street, however, he modernized his ranch houses with the use of large picture windows for the rooms facing the back.

May built his houses in two styles. His “Mexican Haciendas” were in the Spanish colonial revival style and featured red tile roofs, coarsely plastered walls, and deeply inset windows and doors with rough-hewn wooden lintels and shutters. By deliberately creating a crude, handcrafted appearance on the exterior of his haciendas, May’s houses are very similar in look and feel to nineteenth-century California adobes such as the Estudillo House in San Diego. In contrast, his “Early California Rancherias” resembled the vernacular architecture of the West in the nineteenth century with their wood-shingle roofs and board-and-batten walls.17 Clearly, both styles worked well for May and he continued to elaborate on them after he moved to Los Angeles during this period.

Cliff May ranch plans

When May moved to Los Angeles on the advice and help of John A. Smith, a former client, his career flourished.18 Smith not only provided May with financial backing from his firm, the First National Finance Corporation of Los Angeles, but also introduced him to Alphonzo Bell, real estate developer of Bel Air during the teens and twenties. With Bell’s advice and Smith’s money, May bought land in West Los Angeles and began his first major tract development.19 Called Riviera Ranch, the tract consisted of twenty-four homes on 2/3 to 1-acre parcels of land starting at $15,000. May advertised his development as “Exclusive Early California Ranches in a Planned Community on the last of the Great California Ranchos, San Vicente y Santa Monica.”20 Each house, he claimed, recreated “the romantic charm of early-day California Ranch life” but with all of the modern conveniences.21 One-story and shaped in a splayed U, the Riviera Ranch houses consisted of three or more bedrooms, two bathrooms, a living room, dining room, kitchen, and sunroom. They also had several outdoor patio areas and a garage. The style of the houses reflected May’s work in San Diego. Buyers could chose between a “hacienda” and “rancheria.” But more importantly, May specifically added other elements to this tract development to create “a rancho atmosphere.” Each home included stables, a tack room and paddock for horses; a hand-split redwood rail fence surrounding the lot; and a “ranch” gate which opened to a driveway, horse stables, and paths leading to various horse trails May formed through the development. In addition, May built a home here for his family that was featured in several magazines including Architectural Digest, Architectural Forum, House Beautiful, House and Garden, Sunset, and in both of Sunset’s Western ranch house books.22 Moreover, he used his house as model for designing over fifty custom homes.23

Although May continued to design houses for middle-to-upper-class clients, he also began to design for another profitable and large segment of the building market—the average American family. After examining the residential construction market in 1939, Architectural Forum selected one of May’s recently built houses as a “satisfactory low cost house.”24 The house, under 1,000 square feet, consisted of a living room, kitchen, dining room, two bedrooms and a bath at a cost of $3,550—a price according to Architectural Forum that met “the $35-a-month budget of the average U. S. citizen in the average U. S. community.”25 Unfortunately most American families would have to wait to enjoy such a home for World War II curtailed the construction of houses. May like other architects at the time, therefore, turned his attention to designing housing for defense workers.26

Once the war ended, housing had reached a critical situation. Residential construction had fallen far behind due to depression and war.27 Millions of families needed homes and it was in this atmosphere that the ranch house grew extremely popular and Cliff May enjoyed incredible success. Although many magazines would publicize May’s ranch designs, two major magazines particularly promoted him so that he became recognized as the leading designer of ranch houses in the 1940s and 1950s in the United States.28

Cliff May ranch home

Sunset magazine was May’s first major promoter. After World War II, Sunset was the top selling magazine in and of the West. Each month Sunset presented topics for its male and female readers on travel, food, houses, and gardens.29 Beginning in 1944 Sunset devoted several major articles on the ranch house and Cliff May.30 In 1946, Sunset magazine published Sunset Western Ranch Houses in collaboration with May. The book consisted of forty-three ranch house plans designed by various architects and builders, however, Cliff May’s work dominated with at least seventeen designs.31 Sunset Western Ranch Houses found instant success: 50,000 copies sold and it went through four printings.32

Throughout the late 1940s and into the 1950s Sunset continued to promote May’s ranch houses in magazine articles and by hiring him in 1951 to design their new corporate headquarters in Menlo Park. When completed, Sunset offered daily tours of its new 30,000 square-foot “suburban Western home” to the public and actively publicized it in their magazine.33 Clearly, May was one of the magazine’s favorite builders because in 1958 when Sunset produced one more book on Western ranch houses, it featured only Cliff May’s designs.34

Sunset magazine may have launched the ranch style and May’s designs in the West, however, it was House Beautiful that gave May’s ranch houses national attention. A Hearst magazine dedicated to home design and decoration, House Beautiful first did a full-length feature on Cliff May in 1946. Titled “Meet a Family That Really Knows How to Live,” the 26-page article focused on how May and his family lived in their Riviera Ranch home.35 But it was in 1948 that House Beautiful advanced May’s career when it built one of his ranch designs in Los Angeles. Called the “Pace-Setter House,” House Beautiful not only devoted a full issue to the house but also let the public tour the home they decorated, furnished, and landscaped.36 The house, like Sunset Western Ranch Houses, was an instant success with the public. After the article was published, May received twenty commissions to build this design all over the United States.37

Cliff May traditional ranch

With all of the attention May received after the war, it is important to ask why the ranch house appealed so much to the postwar generation. Certainly, magazines played a major role with their admiring articles on the ranch house.38 Movie stars like Olivia de Havilland and Gregory Peck, who lived in ranch homes, also added to its attraction.39 But more importantly, the ranch house with its rambling, open plan and walls of windows became associated with “the California way of life” of living casually, comfortably, and out-of-doors. After living in cramped accommodations, often with relatives, the ranch house seemed to fulfill the postwar buyer dream of enjoying wide, open spaces indoors and out all year round without the formalities associated with other house styles. And one did not need to live in California to enjoy ranch house living. As long as a family lived in a ranch house built with the latest technological advances in heating and cooling, they could enjoy ranch house living anywhere in the United States.40

And May designed what the public wanted. By the 1940s, he had largely abandoned the formal Spanish colonial revival style. Instead, he expanded on the vernacular architecture of the nineteenth-century West on the exterior of his houses with International Modern ideas for the interior. Hence, during this period, May’s houses are typically one-story dwellings with low-pitched, wood-shingle roofs and board-and-batten walls. On the interior, his houses are designed with free-flowing open plans, walls of windows (the larger size as well as quantity), and indoor spaces connected to the outdoors by the use of the same paving materials inside and out, extension of indoors planters to the outdoors, and arrangement of sliding glass doors leading into the backyard garden.41

In 1952, May’s ranch houses became available on a much wider basis for the middle-class American family. May, along with his associate architect Chris Choate, designed a suburban tract house. A subdivision using the plan was then built in Cupertino.42 Because of the success of this project, May and Choate formed the Ranch House Supply Corporation in 1953 to sell their designs in California to licensed builders. Success struck again. Before the year was out, May and Choate had sold their plans to nearly thirty builders throughout California. Thus, May and Choate expanded their company in 1954 to include the West and southern areas of the United States.43

Cliff May advertisement

May’s success as a suburban tract designer continued with the “Magic-Money House.” In 1953, the W & J Sloane Furniture Company constructed, furnished, and landscaped this ranch design on the roof of their six-story Beverly Hills store building.44 Advertised as a house for “young people with young incomes,” the Sloane company estimated that 35,000 people had visited this two-bedroom model house only four months after its opening. As a result, W & J Sloane built another Magic-Money House for their store in San Francisco. But this was not the only promotion that May received for the house. As W & J Sloane promoted the design, several subdivisions of Magic-Money Houses were built throughout California. By 1954 over one thousand Magic-Money Houses had been built. Moreover, the house received additional recognition when it was selected for exhibition at the Ninth Annual Los Angeles Home Show in June 1954.45

As the Magic-Money House grew in popularity so did Cliff May and the ranch house. In 1955, more than eight out of ten tract houses built in the United States were in the ranch style and Cliff May was the leading designer.46 Not only could May point to the number of ranch houses and non-residential buildings he designed and built but also the professional appointments he served and awards received. From 1940-1950 May was president of the Los Angeles division of the Building Contractors Association and from 1946-1952 a staff consultant to House Beautiful magazine. In 1947, 1952, and 1953 May won design awards from the National Association of Home Builders. Later he received an Award of Merit for Residential Design and Construction from House and Home in 1956 and the “Hallmark House” award from House and Garden in 1958.47 But, by far, May’s greatest success occurred when Sunset magazine produced a second Western ranch house book that featured his work exclusively—an accomplishment few architects have achieved.

Western Ranch Houses by Cliff May presents a broad sampling of May’s postwar work as well as the evolution of his Modernist ideas towards housing. The most important and creative of these are the ranch houses he designed for his family. In 1949 May remodeled his Riviera Ranch House in West Los Angeles expanding on the indoor-outdoor living concept by replacing fixed windows with sliding glass doors and enlarging the patio area in the backyard.48 However, May went even further with “bringing the outdoors in” as well as the idea of open planning when he built an “Experimental House” for his family in the early 1950s.

Cliff May house

A bold design, May created this house as a one-story, rectangular plan with a 288-square-foot open skylight down the center of the roof, glass walls, and only three interior walls for two bathrooms and a kitchen. Consisting of approximately 1,800 square feet of living space, May’s family of five formed different rooms through the use of movable partitions. The family lived in the house for two years while May learned how his open plan and sizeable skylight worked for the family.49 From their experiences May designed and built “Mandalay,” his last home for his family.

Mandalay integrated the design of the Experimental House with May’s latest thinking on the ranch style and Modernist ideas. Built in Sullivan Canyon in West Los Angeles in 1956, May designed Mandalay as a one-story dwelling with wings projecting at right angles from a central spine.50 He covered the low-pitched roofs with pebbles from a California creek bed and in two sections he cut skylights extending from one end of the roof to the other. He also extensively utilized glass walls, sliding glass windows, and indoor/outdoor planters—all design elements used in the Experimental House. More importantly, May added a new concept to the idea of bringing the outdoors in. Not only did he use the same paving materials inside and out but also the same ceiling and wall materials. Wooden roof beams and rafters as well as board-and-batten and white-plastered walls flowed from the outdoors in. Moreover, May included radiant heating in the patio terraces and outdoor lighting; ideas that he used in his other homes to make the outdoors feel as part of the indoors at night.

In arranging the rooms of the house May combined open planning with private spaces for the family. A large house, consisting of 6,300 square feet, May designed the entry, kitchen, and living, dining, and family rooms as one open area with no intervening doors. However, in creating spaces for the bedrooms, dressing rooms, and bathrooms, May did not make use of partitions as he had in the Experimental House. Instead, he built interior walls and doors to provide privacy for these rooms.

Cliff May ad

What is most interesting about Mandalay was May’s ideas about the ranch style. Although May designed the house as an asymmetrical, one-story dwelling, the plan was complex, forming courtyards on both sides of the house rather than having the main courtyard in the center. The roof was low-pitched with wide overhanging eaves but covered with rock rather than wood shingles. May included board-and-batten as well as white-plastered walls but felt that he needed to give the house “a sophisticated touch of the [Spanish] past.” To achieve such a worldly look, he added Spanish, Mexican, and French architectural crafts and decorative elements: a sixteenth-century Gothic grille, historic doors, lighting fixtures, and wrought-iron door handles, and antiquated books.51 Indeed, May’s California ranch house of the 1950s resembled a Contemporary Modern house rather than a nineteenth-century California adobe that he once strove to emulate in the 1930s.

Throughout the rest of his life, Cliff May would continue to design award-winning houses and non-residential buildings, including the famous Robert Mondavi Winery building that has appeared on Mondavi wine bottle labels since the 1960s.52 Yet, May was more than a designer of ranch houses and commercial buildings. He was an innovator, too. During his career he developed new flooring, heating, cooling, lighting, and wall systems. He also experimented with modular and prefabricated construction after World War II.53 And he continued to design and build furniture.54 But because May did not become a licensed architect until 1988, a year before he died, he never received recognition for his designs nor innovations by the profession’s association, the American Institute of Architects.55 In addition, although scholars recognized May’s contribution for developing the California ranch house, the style itself was generally considered a vernacular rather than an exceptional or significant architectural style, and thus, not truly worthy of a lengthy study. However, this is beginning to change.

The California ranch house has reached its fiftieth anniversary, prompting a growing fascination in this “new” historic architectural style and Cliff May. Indeed, local historical groups have begun to arrange lectures about May and organize tours to view his works. Hennessey & Ingalls, a company that specializes in republishing “classic” architectural books, lately reprinted Sunset Western Ranch Houses and Western Ranch Houses by Cliff May making them available again to the general public. Moreover, two of May’s houses—the Lindstrom House and Experimental House—were recently listed as historic landmarks.56 Most of all, historians are now seriously researching the ranch style and interpreting it as the significant architectural style of the 1940s and 1950s. As a result, they are recognizing Cliff May for not only defining the California ranch house but also as the major designer of the American dream home of the 1940s and 1950s—a style that is still built extensively today.

 

This article was originally published in the Southern California Quarterly 86, no. 2 (2004). No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission of the author.

 

BIO

Mary van Balgooy

Mary A. van Balgooy is an award-winning museum professional who has worked in a variety of institutions, including archives, botanic gardens, historic houses, historical societies, museums, preservation organizations, universities, and governmental agencies at city, county, and federal levels with major responsibilities for administration, collections, education and interpretation, fundraising, preservation, and public relations.

Mary is vice president of Engaging Places, LLC, and the first executive director of the Society of Woman Geographers (SWG), an international membership association based in Washington, D.C.

More on Cliff May

 

 

Notes:
1 Architectural Digest IX [1934]. For more information on these architects and their designs see David Gebhard and Robert Winter, Architecture in Los Angeles: A Compleat Guide (Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith Books, 1985), 18, 122, 232, 339, 375, 415.
2 May’s career spanned almost sixty years. Sam Hall Kaplan, “Cliff May: Designer of Dream Houses,” Los Angeles Times, 29 October 1989, sec. K; Brendan Gill, “Remembering Cliff May,” Architectural Digest 48 (May 1991): 30.
3 David Bricker, “Cliff May” in Toward a Simpler Way of Life: The Arts & Crafts Architects of California, ed. Robert Winter (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997), 283; R. W. Brackett, A History of the Ranchos of San Diego County, California (San Diego: Union Title Insurance and Trust Company, 1939), 22-25, 64-66; “Casa de Estudillo,” 1999-2001 <http://www.sandiegohistory.org/links/oldtown.htm#estudillo> (30 December 2001); Sally B. Woodbridge, California Architecture: Historic American Buildings Survey (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1988), 202-203.
4 Sally Bullard Thornton, “Hazel Wood Waterman” in Winter, ed., Toward a Simpler Way of Life, 221-223.
5 Kathie Graler, “Spanish Missions and Adobe” in Settler Communities in the West, July 1994, <https://www.denix.osd.mil/denix/Public/ES-Programs/Conservation/Legacy/Settler/sett6.html> (22 Jan. 2002); Cliff May, interview by Marlene L. Laskey, 1984, Oral History Program, University of California, Los Angeles, viii.
6 Bricker, “Cliff May,” 284. In his oral history, May stated he took all upper division business courses when he first enrolled. After completing those courses he did not want to take the basic requirement classes for his degree because he was impatient to get out into the world. May interview by Laskey, viii, 79.
7 Ibid., 81.
8 Roger Renick, “Monterey Furniture: California Spanish Revival, 1929-1943,” West Coast Peddler 31 (March 1999): 51-57; Robert L. Smith, et al., Monterey: California Rancho Furniture, Pottery and Art (exhibit catalogue) (Santa Monica: Santa Monica Heritage Museum, 1989).
9 May married Jean Lichty in 1932 at the San Diego Mission. Lecture presented by Jody Greenwald, Mount St. Mary’s College, California, 23 September 2000.
10 May interview by Laskey, 81-83. The history of who May worked with to install his furniture in model homes as well as construct his first house is unclear. In his oral history May states that he placed his furniture in the house of a friend O. U. Miracle, who was a realtor. It was Miracle who then introduced him to his future father-in-law, R. C. Lichty. However, David Bricker writes that May placed his furniture in one of Lichty’s model homes and that May worked in partnership with Miracle, who was Lichty’s grading contactor to design and build the O’Leary house. Bricker, “Cliff May,” 285.
11 At this time, one could practice architecture if one notified the client in writing that one was not an architect. In his oral history May commented that he drew up simple floor plans that would not pass inspection today. In addition, his friend and “mentor,” William F. Hale, taught him how to construct this house. The building of the house started in 1931. May interview by Laskey, 85, 90-91, 93.
12 Ibid., 83; David Bricker, “Built for Sale: Cliff May and the Low Cost California Ranch House” (Master’s Thesis, University of California, Santa Barbara, 1983), 111, n. 28.
13 “Cliff May, Miracle Company” advertisement in Architectural Digest IX [1934]: 84.
14 Bricker, “Built for Sale,” 111, n. 28.
15 “Haciendas & Rancherias By Cliff May, Honors by the World” advertisement in Architectural Digest IX [1937]: 160.
16 May’s non-residential works included a women’s club building and two motels. May interview by Laskey, viii; Bricker, “Built for Sale,” 111, n. 28; 115, n. 35.
17 Many people today associate board-and-batten siding with the frontier West. However, board-and-batten became popular during the picturesque movement with the Gothic revival style (1840-1875) and spread to the West as Americans settled on the frontier. William H. Pierson, Jr., Technology and the Picturesque, the Corporate and the Early Gothic Styles, vol. 2 of American Buildings and Their Architects (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 304, 454.
18 John A. Smith was an oil industrialist and banker. He hired May to build a home for him in La Habra after visiting one of May’s completed projects in Presidio Hills, San Diego. Bricker, “Built for Sale,” 112, n. 29.
19 May also built houses in other areas (one in Bel Air and one in Mandeville Canyon) when he first arrived in Los Angeles. Ibid., 12, 112, n. 29; Gill, “Remembering Cliff May,” 30.
20 The development was located on Sunset Boulevard across from the Riviera Country Club Polo Fields. “Open for Inspection, Urban Model Ranch” advertisement in the Los Angeles Times, Sunday, 20 October 1940, sec. 5.
21 Ibid.; Cynthia Castle, “The Times Home Hunter,” Los Angeles Times, Sunday, 17 November 1940, sec. 5.
22 This was not May’s first house in Los Angeles. When May moved to Los Angeles, he constructed a house in Mandeville Canyon. Soon after the completion of the Riviera Ranch house, May sold his house and moved to the tract development. “Residence of Mr. and Mrs.
Cliff May, Mandeville Canyon,” Architectural Digest X [1935]: 52-53. Magazines that featured May’s Riviera Ranch house: “Modern Ranch House of Mr. and Mrs. Cliff May, Riviera Ranch, West Los Angeles 24,” Architectural Digest XI [1935]: 4-9; “House in West Los Angeles, California,” Architectural Forum (December 1944): 134-135; Helen Weigel Brown, “Meet a Family That Really Knows How to Live,” House Beautiful (April 1946): 74-99; “Streamlining the Ranch House,” House and Garden (November 1941): 20-21; “What’s the Future of the Ranch House?,” Sunset (June 1944): 10-13; and “More About the Ranch House,” Sunset (June 1944): 38-40. Sunset’s two books are: The Editorial Staff of Sunset Magazine in collaboration with Cliff May, Sunset Western Ranch Houses (1946; reprint, Santa Monica, CA: Hennessey and Ingalls, 1999) and The Editorial Staff of Sunset Magazine and Books under the Direction of Paul C. Johnson, editor of Sunset Books, Western Ranch Houses by Cliff May (1958; reprint, Santa Monica, CA: Hennessey and Ingalls, 1997).
23 Western Ranch Houses by Cliff May, 25. May would remodel Riviera Ranch in 1949.
24 “50 Low Cost Houses,” Architectural Forum 70 (April 1939): 263.
25 “50 Low Cost Houses—House in San Diego, California, Cliff May, Designer,” Architectural Forum 70 (April 1939): 276; “The Low Cost House,” Architectural Forum 70 (April 1939): 261.
26 May’s commissions included temporary barracks in Glendale, a one bedroom duplex development project for Ontario, and single-family defense houses in Wilmington. Bricker, “Built for Sale,” 14-15.
27 Kenneth Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 232.
28 Other magazines that featured May include Good Housekeeping, Architectural Record, Pic, Better Homes and Gardens, House and Home, Life, and American Home.
29 Cissie Dore Hill, “Sunset: A Century of Western Living, 1898-1998,” California History 78 (Summer 1999): 95-96; Tomas Jaehn, “Four Eras: Changes of Ownership,” Sunset Magazine: A Century of Western Living, 1898-1998: Historical Portraits and A Chronological Bibliography of Selected Topics (Stanford: Stanford Libraries, 1998), 90, 100.
30 “What is the Western Ranch House,” Sunset (February 1944): 12-13; “Is Ranch House the Name for It?,” Sunset (May 1944): 10-13; “What’s the Future of the Ranch House?,” Sunset (June 1944): 10-13; “More About the Ranch House,” Sunset (June 1944): 38-40; “The Changeable, Flexible Ranch House,” Sunset (July 1944): 10-13.
31 The second architect to have the most designs published was Worley Wong with four. Sunset Western Ranch Houses, 30-160.
32 “The Ranch House, Early California to Today,” Sunset (August 1988): 144.
33 “Sunset Magazine Has a New Home in the Country,” Sunset (August 1951): 29; “On the Next Pages . . . We Invite You on a Walk Through Sunset’s New Home,” Sunset (August 1952): 47-54.
34 The second book on ranch houses was titled Western Ranch Houses by Cliff May.
35 Brown, “Meet a Family,” 74-99.
36 “A House to Set the Pace,” House Beautiful (February 1948): 61-71; “The Advantages of Turning Your Back on the World,” House Beautiful (February 1948): 88-89; “A Four-Way Kitchen,” House Beautiful (February 1948): 106-107; “Advanced,” House Beautiful (February 1948): 110-111. The Pace-Setter House was then sold. It still stands today in Los Angeles and is a private residence.
37 Western Ranch Houses by Cliff May, 66.
38 From 1945 to 1947 magazines referred to California domestic architecture four times more than any other state. Thomas Hine, “The Search for the Postwar House” in Blueprints for Modern Living: History and Legacy of the Case Study Houses, ed. Elizabeth A. T. Smith (Los Angeles: The Museum of Contemporary Art, 1989), 172.
39 Ibid.; Anne Edwards, “Gregory Peck: To Kill a Mockingbird’s Oscar Winner in Pacific Palisades,” Architectural Digest 53 (April 1996): 166-171, 296.
40 Clifford Edward Clark, Jr., The American Family Home, 1800-1960 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1986), 210-211; Gwendolyn Wright, Building the Dream: A Social History of Housing in America (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1981), 242, 253.
41 Lesley Jackson, ed., ‘Contemporary’: Architecture and Interiors of the 1950s (London: Phaidon Press Ltd., 1994), 19, 23-25.
42 Sunset magazine featured the house for their cover article. “More Living Space,” Sunset (November 1952): 44-47.
43 Chris Choate started working for May after World War II. He became May’s associate architect in 1949 and their business relationship lasted until the mid-1950s. Bricker, “Built for Sale,” 14, 82, 85.
44 “Look What’s on Sloane’s Roof!” advertisement in the Los Angeles Times, Sunday, 21 June 1953, sec. 5. The store was located at 9560 Wilshire Boulevard, Beverly Hills.
45 Bricker, “Built for Sale,” 87-88, 91.
46 Ibid., 81. The design and look of the ranch house in other parts of the country did vary according to climate and tastes.
47 May interview by Laskey, ix.
48 Western Ranch Houses by Cliff May, 24-39.
49 Ibid., 126-131.
50 In Western Ranch Houses by Cliff May, Sunset states that the house was built in 1956. However, other sources including photographs by Julius Shulman indicate that Mandalay was completed by 1953. Ibid., 142; Lecture by Jody Greenwald, 23 September 2000.
51 Western Ranch Houses by Cliff May, 142-159. May lived in Mandalay until his death in the 1980s. During the time that he lived there, he remodeled the house thirteen times. In 1994 the house was demolished. Lecture by Jody Greenwald, 23 September 2000; Annette Andreozzi, “Cliff May’s Definitive Ranch House Demolished,” Los Angeles Conservancy News 17 (May/June 1995): 4.
52 David Colen, “View from Wappo Hill,” Architectural Digest 46 (May 1989): 276-282.
53 May interview by Laskey, xi.
54 Laura Tanner, “Outdoor Furniture That Can Stay Out,” House Beautiful (May 1950): 160-166.
55 Kaplan, “Cliff May,” sec. K. When May moved to Los Angeles he built a house in Bel Air that received a lot of publicity. Apparently some local members of the A. I. A. did not like all the attention May was attracting nor the liberal use of the title “architect” attached to his name since he was not licensed as one. Thus, they threatened May with a lawsuit. Fortunately, May’s friend John Smith stepped in and had his attorneys clear any grievance against him. However, May would not be allowed to use the title “architect,” only designer or builder. Bricker, “Built for Sale,” 12, 113, n. 30; Gill, “Remembering Cliff May,” 30.
56 The Lindstrom House was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on 13 February 2001 and the City of Los Angeles Cultural Commission designated May’s Experimental House as a Historic-Cultural Monument in May 2002.

 

Susan Avitzour author

Phil Ochs’ Guitar

by Susan Petersen Avitzour

 

For years, I was convinced I was responsible for Phil Ochs’ death.

I conceived this belief six years before he died.

 

Friday, March 27, 1970

            Oh, I marched to the battle of New Orleans at the end of the early British war

Carnegie Hall erupted into shouts of joy and wild applause. Phil was singing “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” and we were eating it up. We could almost forget the gold costume, the weird guitar, the Fifties-style numbers he’d opened with. “We came for Phil, not Elvis,” someone behind me had grumbled. But now the hall roiled with long-haired, tie-dyed children of the Sixties singing along, clapping, dancing in place. My sister Ruth and I rocked in our seats. What could be better?

I was fifteen, too young to truly belong to the decade that was now drawing to a close, but I fervently identified with its ideals. Peace, Love, Freedom for All Peoples. Look out, world, our songs said, we’re a-coming and you’re a-changing. This concert was meant to be our time, our place, our message. Though I hadn’t absorbed this from the Sixties generation; Ruth and I had inherited it from our father.

Daddy had died two months before the concert; it was he who’d introduced us to Phil Ochs. Our parents had separated when I was eleven and Ruth was nine, and a couple of years later we found pages of Phil’s lyrics and some poems on the coffee table in our father’s living room. “This young man is talking about the real issues,” he said. “Not like these other songwriters nowadays, who can think only about themselves and their own feelings.” The next day, Ruth and I went out and bought our first album.

 

The audience forgave Phil, but not for long. He transitioned into a set of country-rock-n-roll songs, some he’d written and some by Elvis, Buddy Holly, and Merle Haggard. None, not even his own, had a thing to do with change, any connection with repairing the world.

“What happened to Phil Ochs?” one man shouted.

“This is as much Phil Ochs as anything else,” Phil retorted, and launched into one of his new songs.

Fill ‘er up with love please won’t you, mister
Just the hi-test is what I used to say
But that was before I lost my baby
I’ll have a dollar’s worth of regular today.

Restless bodies shifted in their seats. Country music belonged to the enemy, they were saying, to those flag-waving, war-loving rednecks.

But I sat quietly, trying to piece together what Phil was trying to do. Not all his songs were political, I knew. Some were lyrical. Some were autobiographical. At that thought – just as the booing started – I leaned forward in my seat and listened closely to the lyrics.

I never should have left my home, never left the farm
But the city was exciting, it couldn’t do me any harm…

I held my breath. Phil was channeling my father.

Walter Martin Petersen always felt it was up to him to right the world’s wrongs. Born on a farm just before the Great Depression, he grew up watching his mother serve plates of beans to the starving hoboes who’d come knocking at their back door. In high school he joined the Young People’s Socialist League, eventually becoming National Secretary. He enlisted right after graduating, hoping to fight the Nazis, though his flat feet landed him in the Merchant Marine. After the war and three years of college, he worked for a time as a machinist in a rather romantic bid to join the working class. A few years later, he lost another job – with the Liberal Party, of all employers – for spending most of his time preaching Socialism and trying to organize the personnel. When Ruth and I were small he’d sing us to sleep with songs like “Union Maid” and “Which Side Are You On?” (“This side!” “No, this side!” we’d pipe up from our beds.)

One time, about two years after he moved out, he picked us up for our regular Tuesday visit and told us he’d be taking us someplace special. “It’s a surprise.”

We were certainly surprised when we got there. A supermarket?

“You’ll see,” he said, winking.

As it turned out, he’d collected contributions from his friends and co-workers to buy food for Biafra, a famine-stricken province trying to secede from Nigeria. The three of us rolled up and down the aisles as if it were a skating rink, piling can upon can until the cart threatened to tip over. I’ll never forget his pride – and ours – when we drove out to the harbor and delivered those cans to the Africa-bound aid ship.

But it was the war in Vietnam that truly galvanized him. As it did the troubadour of the antiwar movement, Phil Ochs.

 

The audience was beginning to heckle in earnest, but I barely registered the commotion.

I cannot face another girl, I believe I’ll turn to drink
So I won’t remember, so I won’t have to think
Tomorrow will bring happiness or, at least, another day
So I will bid farewell and I’ll be on my way.

Was Phil drinking? Was that why his voice was beginning to hoarsen, to crack? Maybe he was just having an off day.

(A year or so after the separation, our father had told Ruth and me that he’d “stopped drinking.” That was how we found out he was an alcoholic. “But I’ve been dry ever since I moved out,” he proudly proclaimed.)

As the audience jeered, I suddenly felt protective. Can’t they see he isn’t feeling well?

Then Phil started “My Life,” the song I’d always felt my father could have written. This one was a “real” Phil Ochs number, and the crowd quieted and listened.

My life was once a joy to me
Ever knowing I was growing every day,
My life was once a toy to me
And I wound it and I found it ran away…

I knew just what he meant by “toy.” During the demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Phil had not only sung to the protestors, but had also inspired his admirers and enraged his detractors with antics like buying a pig for Abbie Hoffman to nominate for President. He seemed to be having so much fun that I was a little envious of him and his friends.

My father also always loved the comic, the unexpected, the outrageous. In high school he’d been entitled, as student council president, to use the public address system. One morning he went into the school office and asked for the mike. “My dear friends,” he said, “I have a very sad announcement to make.” The secretaries in the office stopped what they were doing and looked at him, eyes wide. Had someone died?

At the time, a joke was being whispered around the school. A mortician is preparing a man’s body for the funeral. He’s so impressed by the body’s huge member that he cuts it off and brings it home to show his wife. She takes one look, gasps, and exclaims – and my father announced, without any lead-in, over the intercom – “Schultz is dead!”

One of his favorite shticks was to throw a blanket over our heads when he was driving us somewhere in his old black Morris Minor. “Charlie,” he’d say in a hoarse gangster’s voice, “where d’ya think we should dump dese goils?” He’d then speak in a high, cracked whine. “In da river, where d’ya think, Pete?” “I dunno, I’m gettin tired a dat place,” he’d have “Charlie” say. He’d keep this up until Ruth and I were helpless with laughter.

But his sense of humor began to wither as anger and despair over Vietnam slowly engulfed him. Antiwar activity began to push all else out of his life; he talked about practically nothing else.

I can’t remember when I first became aware of his obsession. It was certainly in full bloom by the time he sat Ruth and me down – how old were we? eleven and thirteen? – and explained to us about napalm. Words couldn’t describe it, he said, so he opened the folder he kept on his coffee table. Ruth cried, I think, but I just stared at the photos of blackened skin, of shriveled limbs, of half-melted faces. They are with me to this day.

About a year before he died, he founded a committee to raise funds for North Vietnamese victims of American bombing. After that, movies, miniature golf, and walks in the park were gradually replaced with afternoons stuffing envelopes in his apartment or handing out leaflets in midtown Manhattan.

Once, toward evening on a hot June day, he opened a folding table on the corner of 59th and Lexington. Passing sedans gunned their motors, taxis honked their impatience, and buses spewed their exhaust as we stacked our flyers. The sidewalk boiled with men and women rushing to the nearest bus or subway stop without more than a glance in our direction.

Finally, a young woman took a page and stopped for a moment to read it. “Yeah, this friggin’ war is the pits,” she said, opening her purse, “and it’s just going on and on.”

A group of curious teenagers drifted over. “Hey, what’s happening?” one said.

“Collecting for victims of American bombing in Vietnam,” my father said. “Can you help?”

“No, man, I can relate,” said another of the kids, “but I’m broke.” They milled around for another couple of minutes before ambling off.

Ruth and I went back to work. I’d just gotten into the swing of things – step up to a likely-looking woman or man, smile, offer a leaflet, get rebuffed, say “Thanks anyway,” then step up to the next person – when a rough voice coming from behind startled me out of my rhythm.

“What are you, some kind of Commies?”

We’d attracted the attention of two brawny men in sweaty T-shirts and hard hats. Their fists were clenched at their sides.

“No, no,” my father said, “just against the war.”

“Against America, you mean.” One took a step toward the table.

My father held up his hands, palms out. “Now, let’s not start anything. No one’s looking for trouble here.”

The hard hats exchanged glances and sniggered. One hawked and spat. The other grinned, walked up to my father, and upended the table. “Fucking Commies,” he said, before strutting off with his friend.

My father stood still for a moment, then bent down and pulled the table upright. Ruth and I collected the leaflets from the sidewalk and re-stacked them neatly. Then we went back to trying our best to interest the uninterested.

But it was only when Charlotte moved in with him that his obsession with the war morphed into full-blown monomania. Ruth and I had liked Rita, his first post-separation girlfriend. She was like Mom, feisty and funny, and Ruth and I were sorry when they broke up. Still, we were prepared to accept a new woman in his life, and curious to meet this one.

It was a shock when he finally brought us to his apartment and introduced us to her. My mother and Rita were hardly model material, but both were trim, well-dressed, and well-groomed. Charlotte was short and dumpy, with uneven features and long, curly black hair streaked with grey. Flaky face powder did a very bad job of concealing her very bad skin; bright red lipstick strayed here and there from the outlines of her mouth. She was dressed in an oversized T-shirt and shiny black pants.

I really didn’t care about Charlotte’s looks, though; it was her behavior that got to me. I can’t remember her saying a single positive word. Ever. The country was run by reactionaries; the hypocritical liberals were no better; the media was in cahoots with the forces of evil.

Ruth and I didn’t escape her scorn. Once we walked into our father’s living room wearing buttons saying “End the War in Vietnam Now” and “War Is Not Healthy for Children and Other Living Things.” Charlotte looked at us and snorted. “These liberals,” she said through clenched teeth, “they think all they need to do is wear a button and they’ve done their part.” She stormed out of the room.

Another time, our father asked Ruth and me if we had any advice that might help Charlotte lose weight. We told him that when our mother was on a diet she’d sometimes dine on half a cantaloupe filled with low-fat cottage cheese. A couple of weeks later, Charlotte, flushed with anger, proclaimed that our “diet” was making her sick. It turned out she’d eaten nothing but melon and cottage cheese ever since he’d passed on our suggestion.

Part of what attracted my father to Charlotte was that she’d lived for some time in North Vietnam. He told us how she’d found Hanoi not to be the drab, grim caricature the American media painted of Communist countries. (At the time, I imagined life behind the Iron Curtain as lived literally in black and white.) Not at all; it was an Eden of beautiful public gardens and happy people who only wanted to be left alone to spread their bounty to their countrymen in the South. The summer after we met her, she told us to call her Lan, the Vietnamese name she’d taken when she lived there. Ruth and I learned this right after we returned from camp, where Ruth had woven her a beautiful lanyard bracelet spelling out C-H-A-R-L-O-T-T-E. She took one look and flung it back, saying only, “I don’t want it. That’s not my name.”

Charlotte/Lan also gave my father the chance to care for someone worse off than himself. She never leafleted with us, as she usually felt unwell. She was high-strung and sickly, he told us, because she’d been raised by a mother with a four-way split personality.

We were sitting in Prospect Park that particular spring day, eating sandwiches he’d quickly slapped together (she was resting; lunch in the apartment would make too much noise). Hoping to attract a squirrel, Ruth and I were throwing small pieces of bread to the sparrows and pigeons pecking around our feet.

“One of Lan’s mothers was almost normal,” he told us, “but she was almost never ‘out.’ The second was a nervous wreck who wouldn’t let her do anything, even go out to play. Number three was furious all the time, and used to beat her.”

I caught sight of something out of the corner of my eye. Was that a bushy tail flashing around that tree? Maybe if I threw a big chunk in that direction….

“The fourth personality,” my father said, “was so passive that she didn’t do a thing to take care of her own daughter.” He pressed his fingers against his eyes.

“So you see –” His voice broke. “So you see, she never really had anyone until she met me.” Tears glistened on his cheek. “I know you understand.”

I stole a glance at Ruth, who was busy shredding her bread. Then I nodded, turned quickly to the squirrel, and tossed it the crust I’d been clenching in my fist.

Toward the end of 1969, the sun seemed to come out again for my father. His face seemed lighter, and he smiled more often. He even took us one evening to Greenwich Village to hand out flowers. Holding armfuls of multicolored daisies and carnations, we waited for hippies to come and accept our offerings. When none turned up, we set out in active pursuit, wandering up and down the maze of streets until we finally got to Washington Square Park. Still no luck. So we gave the flowers to anyone who’d take them, mostly New Yorkers but also many tourists like the wide-eyed lady who came up to us and said, “Wow, are you real hippies?”

And he got funny again. True, some of this was “funny strange” – for one thing, he took to wearing an ascot and a beret, and using the word “groovy.” But, Ruth and I agreed, even the embarrassment of “groovy” was better than the bleak talk of the war that had been our fare for so long. And it was so good to laugh with him!

He didn’t give up his activism, of course; in October he took Ruth and me on our first and only road trip together, to the big antiwar march on Washington. He couldn’t stop marveling at how many people had turned out – at least a million, and from all over the country! It had been forever since I’d seen him so optimistic.

Until his toy ran away too.

 

Phil got to the last verse.

My life is now a myth to me
Like the drifter, with his laughter in the dawn.
My life is now a death to me
So I’ll hold it and I’ll mold it till I’m born…

Suddenly a thought set my stomach prickling. If his life is now a death, then being born can only mean….

And the next line:

So I turn from the land where I’m so out of place…

A picture popped into my head: the cover of Rehearsals for Retirement, the album that included “My Life,” showed a tombstone:

Phil Ochs
(American)
Born: El Paso, Texas, 1940
Died: Chicago, Illinois, 1968

I’d thought this inscription was funny when the album first came out, but it no longer felt like just another of Phil’s outrageous jokes. And I knew, I just knew that I was the one person in the audience who understood exactly what he was saying.

What to do? And how?

Phil returned to his new program, and his fans to their complaints. Suddenly, in the middle of a Buddy Holly song, he stopped and walked quickly off the stage. The audience sat stunned. After a couple of minutes a man came on stage, announced that the show was over, and requested that we please leave the auditorium.

Inching with the crowd down the curved, carved grand staircase, Ruth and I speculated. Was Phil insulted? Couldn’t take the jeering anymore? Was he sick, his voice completely gone?

People around me began to mutter. What was this? The gold suit and the country-rock songs were bad enough, but cutting the concert short like that? The murmurs turned to open anger. “We paid good money for this show,” one fan said.

We found the marble and gold entrance hall packed, mostly with young men. Some were milling around. Others were sitting-in on the floor, demanding free entrance to the second show. Under one of the soaring arches that make Carnegie’s lobby look more like a cathedral than a theater, a group of scraggy bearded types had mounted a low side staircase and were exhorting the crowd: If the capitalists who own this place think they can cheat us, they’ve got something else coming. Power To The People!

Bored with their rhetoric, I looked around me – and there he was, just like that. Phil Ochs, out of his gold suit now, wearing ordinary jeans and a leather jacket, walking in from the back door. All eyes were on the orators on the staircase landing; no else one had noticed Phil. My heart picking up, I hurried over.

“Mr. Ochs,” I said. He glanced at me with agitated eyes. “Mr. Ochs, I just wanted to say that I’m really sorry for the way the audience acted during your performance. If you don’t feel well I underst–”

“Can you hold this for me?”

“Excuse me?” I could barely hear him over the shouting.

“Can you hold my guitar for me?”

My pulse throbbed in my neck. “Of course.”

I gathered the guitar into my arms and cradled it so its neck rested against my right shoulder, its body pressed into my middle.

Phil Ochs’ guitar. I imagined it as it must have looked nestled inside its black leather case, as I’d seen it onstage just a short time before. Dark, rich wood, its contours edged in a shiny white. Shaped like an electric, though he’d played it unplugged – a jazz guitar, I learned many years later. Its weight and bulk made it awkward to hold; still, I hugged it close, wondering for a second if I was dreaming.

But I didn’t have time to truly savor the moment, because here was my chance.

“You know,” I said, my voice shaking, “my father was just like you. He also –”

But Phil didn’t hear me. He turned away and began wading through the crowd toward the side staircase. Taking care not to damage my precious burden, I followed, catching up to him just as he mounted the self-styled revolutionaries’ podium. After speaking with them for a minute or two, he turned to me. “Can you say something to everyone for me, real loud?”

I nodded and climbed up beside him.

“Tell them,” he said, his breath ragged. “Tell them there’s been a bomb threat.”

I shouted out his words, to a chorus of boos.

“Tell them the threat turned out to be nothing. And I’ll let the management know that anyone who wants can come to the second show.”

Triumphant cheers.

“Listen,” he said to me quietly, taking back his guitar, “I’ll be around the corner at the –” He fumbled in his shirt pocket for a slip of paper. “This restaurant.” I read an Italian name. “If there’s any problem, you come tell me.”

I nodded and opened my mouth, but before I could say a word he was out the door.

Fifteen minutes later, I made my way to the restaurant. The theater’s manager had insisted it was up to him, not to Phil Ochs, not to any performer, to decide who gets into a show, and for how much, and certainly whether or not to let anyone in for free. And no way was he letting this mob in for free. The crowd had reacted predictably, and I’d left the lobby ringing with chants of Powerrrrrrrr to the People!”

Another opening. I figured Phil and I would walk back to the theater together.

In the restaurant’s muted light it took me some time to find him at a back table, where he sat with some other adults and a little girl. His daughter? “Rehearsals for Retirement” popped into my head.

Had I known the end would end in laughter
I tell my daughter it doesn’t matter.

I noticed absently that his daughter’s hair was dark blond and straight, like mine.

“Mr. Ochs,” I said, moving over to where he could see me, “you wanted –”

“Who are you?” Startled, I looked around the table. The voice belonged to an older woman. She looked about sixty. His mother…?

I looked at Phil. “I – I came because he wanted –”

“Can’t you leave him alone?”

“I’m sorry –”

“They don’t leave him alone for a minute,” she said to the table in general, then turned back to me. “Can’t you at least let him eat?”

“But he asked me to let him know –”

“Let him eat!” She glared at me.

“They won’t let people into the second show,” I said quickly.

Phil looked exhausted. He was pale, and his voice shook. “Tell them I’ll come in a little bit and talk with the management.”

OK, I was about to say, Enjoy your dinner, when a strident voice drowned out the soft background music.

“Hey, man, this really sucks.” I looked over my shoulder; a group of young men had apparently followed me from the theater.

I would speak with Phil once more. He’d return to the theater later that evening to keep his promise, only to find the box office closed. He’d smash a furious fist through its window, badly hurting his hand. So he’d borrow mine, and I’d take down the names of those who wanted to attend the second show.

But there would be no more moments when I might say what I wanted so much to say to him.

I’d missed my chance. Just as I had with Daddy.

 

Friday, January 30, 1970

I was hoping for snow, but it was an exceptionally clear night. My father had taken my sister and me to dinner, without Lan. He drove us home without saying a word, and I realized suddenly that he hadn’t cracked a joke all evening. It felt strange; I’d gotten used to laughing through meals with him again.

We arrived at Four Stuyvesant Oval at about nine-thirty. Our red-brown brick building stood waiting for us, dusky and impassive in the crescent moon’s light. Ruth and I got out of the car for the transition back to Mom territory. Usually we’d give him a quick kiss through his rolled-down window before he drove off, but this time he killed the engine and got out with us. I shivered a little in the frozen air as he looked at us intently, then bent down and clasped Ruth to him. Eyes closed, face unreadable, he held her a very long time.

I flashed on a photograph he’d recently given each of us. Daddy, receding hair freshly cut, tie carefully adjusted, glasses angled to minimize glare. Daddy, without the slightest trace of a smile. “So you’ll have a picture of your old man,” he’d said.

Now, watching him holding Ruth, something strange was going on in the pit of my stomach. Strange, but somehow familiar. What was it?

It came to me. The only other time I’d felt like this was that Saturday four years before.

We were sitting on the bare floor of our small bedroom, absorbed in a game of Monopoly. Sleet crackled against the steamy windowpane; the radiator hissed; the colorful bills rustled as we counted them out. Suddenly we heard our father clearing his throat. He stood in the doorway; his face sadder than I’d ever seen it. “Come to the living room,” he said. “Your mother and I want to talk with you.”

I thought, They’re going to tell us they’re getting a divorce.

I’d been almost right. Our parents weren’t divorcing, but they were separating. He was leaving the next day.

Now, as he held Ruth in that long embrace, my inner telegraph was signaling again. Daddy Is Going Away. He and Lan are surely moving to North Vietnam. We’ll never see him again.

As he put his arms around me and hugged tighter than I could remember him ever holding me, I cried out, Daddy, don’t go! Don’t leave us!

Except that the words stayed in my head.

He took me by the shoulders. There was pain in his eyes, as if he could see the scream in mine, as if he knew I knew. But he gave us each one last silent kiss, and drove away.

The next afternoon, Ruth and I came home from a day of volunteering at the Student Coordination Committee to End the War in Vietnam to find our living room overflowing with relatives and family friends. Our mother took us into our bedroom and sat us down.

I’d been almost right, again.

This horrible country killed me – as it killed Lan – by betraying and befouling every possible decent aspect of life here through the crucifixion of an innocent, harmless people, he’d written in his note to Ruth and me. The note to our mother explained that he and Lan had been planning to leave the United States for North Vietnam, where they’d hoped to make their home. Hanoi had rejected their application, crushing the only reason they had left to stay in this world.

And I’d done nothing to stop him from leaving.

 

Don’t kill yourself, I’d wanted to say to Phil Ochs. You have a daughter.

During the six years from that ill-starred concert until the day Phil was found hanging from a short rope, I thought many times – often at first, then gradually less so – of writing him a letter saying just that. But where would I send it? I had no address for him. I knew of no more concerts. There were no more albums, either, after Phil Ochs’ Greatest Hits, a collection of the Ochs songs the audience had booed that night. (Gunfight at Carnegie Hall, a live recording from that same concert, would be released in the United States only many years later.)

Time passed. Phil faded out of my life as I grew into it. I fell in love with my first boy, then the next, then the next. I finished high school, went off to college. I spoke about my father with one therapist, then another, then another.

It happened once or twice that a stranger approached me on a New York street and said shyly, almost reverentially, “Aren’t you the girl who held Phil Ochs’ guitar?” Uncomfortable with this derivative celebrity, such as it was, I simply nodded.

Pete Seeger came to Wesleyan toward the end of my senior year, a very short time after Phil’s death. When a friend had called me with the news about Phil, my heart had contracted. He did it. Just as I was afraid he would. He really did it. I’d been right once more. But I was busy with my senior thesis, and had few thoughts to spare for anything else. The raw fact – suicide – truly hit me only when the grandfather of folk and protest music sang one of Phil’s songs in his memory. “Changes,” I believe it was, one of my favorites. Thinking of words unspoken, I cried.

It was then that the vague and fleeting guilt I’d felt each time I contemplated that unwritten and unsent letter to Phil revived, took shape, and crystallized into the thought – irrational and illogical, I knew, but insistent nonetheless – that what I’d held in my hands all those years ago was not only Phil Ochs’ guitar, but his life.

 

Friday, June 24, 2011

It’s not often that Wikipedia changes one’s world. But that’s just what happens today, when I open the article on Phil Ochs. It describes his career, of course, and lists his albums. There’s even a separate sub-heading for 1970, which describes his gold-suited concert tour – Carnegie hadn’t been the only concert at which “his fans didn’t know how to respond,” as Wiki put it delicately – and the beginning of his sharp emotional and professional decline.

But I know most of that even before I open the page. And it’s hardly surprising to learn that Phil suffered from alcoholism, that he sometimes needed drugs to help him get through performances. The discovery that blows me away is that he was ultimately diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

And other severe psychiatric problems. Wiki, again:

In mid-1975, Ochs took on the identity of John Butler Train. He told people that Train had murdered Ochs, and that he, John Butler Train, had replaced him. Train was convinced that someone was trying to kill him, so he carried a weapon at all times: a hammer, a knife, or a lead pipe.

Ochs’ drinking became more and more of a problem, and his behavior became increasingly erratic…. [His] friends tried to help him. His brother Michael attempted to have him committed to a psychiatric hospital. Friends pleaded with him to get help voluntarily. They feared for his safety, because he was getting into fights with bar patrons. Unable to pay his rent, he began living on the streets.

After several months, the Train persona faded and Ochs returned, but his talk of suicide disturbed his friends and family. They hoped it was a passing phase, but Ochs was determined.

I take a breath and close my eyes. I see a girl standing in a crowded, chaotic theater lobby, clutching a guitar to her chest and brimming with a mission to save this man. I see this man, whose biology has already begun to betray him, whose brain will convince him in only a few short years that he’s been murdered, that his murderer has stolen his self.

Could any of his selves have heard her, then or ever?

Could my father?

 

 

 

BIO

Susan AvitzourSusan (Sara) Avitzour has published stories online and in the print anthology Israel Short Stories. Her full-length memoir, And Twice the Marrow of Her Bones, chronicles her daughter Timora’s struggle to lead a normal life as she battled leukemia, and her own journey first with, then without her daughter after Timora died at the age of eighteen.

This year she will receive a Master’s degree in English and Creative Writing from Bar-Ilan University, and is currently working on her first novel.

Born in Brooklyn, Susan moved to Israel in 1980 and settled in Jerusalem, where she and her husband raised seven children. Over the course of her adult life she worked as a lawyer, mediator, grant-writer, and translator. At the age of fifty, she returned to school to become a clinical social worker, and now practices as a psychotherapist.

 

 

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Laura Wang writer

Synesthesia

by Laura Wang

 

 

It is September, three feet away

Stalking each of my footsteps

With each stomp, I hear tickles

With each sip, I taste glass

This cold coffee hums middle C

And C is green and green is three and three is an isosceles

 

Your eyes flit between 5 and M

Depending on the light

Your blue fingers often curl to form a pure G#

When you leave, I feel 4

3 lips taste of rectangles, velvet on my fingertips

Sorbet plus sorbet equals U

Your name is turquoise neon yellow lavender coral mauve

But I call you my September

 

*  *  *

 

The Synesthete

She points at our microwave. Her eyes are a bit glazed; her head cocks to the right; her fingers point at the number “1.”

“It’s kind of a whitish yellow,” says Melia. “Two is pink. Three is red. Four is yellow. Five, blue. Six… light green. Seven, dark blue. Eight is a magenta-pink color, probably closer to magenta. Nine is purple. Zero is white… or clear.”

She puts a pen in her hand and writes out her name on a piece of notebook paper. Her handwriting is precise. She spells her name green orange black blue yellow.

In Greek, “synesthesia” means “to perceive together.” It is a psychological phenomenon when a person perceives two senses to be linked when they are not. Melia sees numbers and letters in colors, the most common form of synesthesia, but there have been reports of tasting in color and hearing in color. Some think of abstract concepts, such as time, in terms of spatial distance. Others, when they hear sounds, feel sensations on their skin.

When Melia was younger, her mother, with handwriting even clearer than Melia’s, would write in bubble letters: HAPPY BIRTHDAY. She and her sister, Tia, got to color them in to celebrate.

“Tia, why can’t you just color them the right colors?”

Tia, purple crayon in her hand, stared at Melia. “What?”

“It’s an ‘H.’ Why can’t you color it pink?”

“Why can’t you be less bossy?”

Tia scribbled purple all over the “H,” not minding that it got outside of the lines. Melia sighed and quickly colored the “P’s” red, as they should be.

Melia and I were randomly placed to live in the same dorm room during our freshmen year of college. I’ve lived with her ever since. One night when we were white-years, we stayed up particularly late talking. She mentioned that she had synesthesia. My eyes widened and mouth gaped when she told me. She shrugged it off.

Today, Melia sits before me, sipping hot M tea in a 7 plaid skirt.

“I wouldn’t say that I found out that I was a synesthete. It was more like I found out everyone else wasn’t. When I was in eighth grade, a girl asked me what my favorite color was, and I said ‘yellow.’ She asked me what things I liked that were yellow and I gave her a list: lemonade, daffodils, and the letter ‘A.’”

Melia’s realization that she had synesthesia is actually similar to most other synesthetes. According to Boston University’s The Synesthesia Project, synesthetes almost never consider that their perceptions might be unique until they realize that there’s a discrepancy between their experiences and their peers.

Around the time that Melia discovered she was a synesthete, she was in a chemistry class and trying to keep up in her extremely competitive Silicon Valley high school. After discovering that she had synesthesia, she looked for ways to use it. Soon, elements and chemical compounds became blocks of color. NaCl, sodium chloride, was green yellow red lightish-yellow, but mainly just green red because those were the capital letters.

She retells with more difficulty the only time she ever remembers cheating on a test. After a particularly stressful week, she had a math test that she didn’t have enough time to prepare for and was panicking. She avoids my eyes as she tells me this story.

“I couldn’t remember the formulas, so I drew little colored dots on my hand. It didn’t work as well as I thought it would. When I see letters, the colors are vivid, but it’s not as effective the other way around. It was more like I remembered that the colors and letters were linked when I looked at the dots, instead of actually seeing the letter when I saw the color. I felt so bad afterwards. I thought I was sick.”

The only other synesthete Melia has ever met was the star flute player in their high school band. The girl heard in her color. She had perfect pitch, and with each distinct note she heard, she saw a differently colored orb-like blob. Melia, always the over-analyzer, tries to piece this out for me.

“I don’t know if her natural perfect pitch helped her develop synesthesia, or if synesthesia helped her develop perfect pitch. I don’t know which one caused the other, or even if there’s a causative relationship. I just think it’d be really cool to listen to music in color.”

“I think it’d be cool to read in color,” I tell her.

She laughs and nods. “That’s fair.”

Other than pneumonic devices and her one-time cheating attempt, Melia doesn’t use her synesthesia as a tool all that often.

“It’s like a party trick. It’s something I could bring up during an icebreaker or get-to-know-you game. I’ve actually written personal statements where I tap into that quality, but that’s about it. I don’t notice it most of the time.”

In truth, synesthesia is everywhere. The Synesthesia Project says that some scientists consider phantom limb as a type of synesthesia. Phantom limb or sensations sometimes occur when one gets a limb amputated. Even after their arm or leg is gone, they can still feel it, experience pain where their limb used to be, and even “move” it. Unlike Melia, whose had her synesthesia since she was born, people with phantom limb develop it later in their life and, with therapy, can overcome it.

The link between taste and smell also seem synesthetic. Our taste buds can only detect sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. All of the flavors we perceive in a vintage wine, apple pie, or yellow curry are mainly due to the sense of smell. The nerves in our eyes and mouth, not taste buds, are even linked to our sensation of taste when we eat spicy food. Each time I take a bite of a spicy hot chicken wing, I simultaneously experience seemingly unrelated senses, the smell of barbecue, the watery of my eyes, and sensations that create one, unified flavor.

Melia and I have a Star Wars poster on our living room wall. The poster is printed in Technicolor-bright ink, and its graphics appear vintage but I bought it at Target for ten dollars a year ago. It’s the largest poster in Melia’s and my apartment. As I sit talking with Melia, my head tilts to the side, studying the poster.

“So when you see that,” I point and she turns her head with me, “and you see ‘Star Wars’ written on there in red, what does your synesthesia do?”

“I don’t have colorblindness, so if something is written down, I don’t have trouble distinguishing the ink,” she tells me. “But on top of it, almost as a shadow, I see the colors that are associated with my synesthesia.”

I remember once when I was eight or nine (I’m not sure what the context was), my brother mentioned that spoken language is really just sounds. When people speak, all they’re doing is making noises and sound waves with their mouths and vocal chords. There’s no inherent meaning in any of it; we, as people, just attach significance to particular noises. It seems obvious, but this was a revelation for me at the time. Any word is only a word to me because I’ve learned to recognize it as such. When I hear someone say “Laura,” I can only understand that the combination of an “l” sound, with an “o” vowel, followed closely by a hard “r,” and closing with the neutral vowel, “uh,” is referring to me because someone taught that to me. If I heard someone say “hey woman” or another term of address in a foreign language, there would be no meaning, no “Laura.” I’d just hear sounds.

As we look at the Star Wars poster, Melia comments on the atypical font. “You know, out of context, I don’t know if I’d recognize the ‘S’ and ‘T’ as ‘S’ and ‘T,’ but as soon as I realize that that’s what they are, I simultaneously see my colors for ‘S’ and ‘T.’”

I ask Melia if synesthesia has ever brought her anything negative. She thinks about it, collecting her thoughts, before answering.

“You realize how subjective words are when you have synesthesia. Any sensory perception is a very subjective experience. I could say ‘color’ or ‘shape,’ but I don’t even know if you think of the same thing as I think of when I say those words. There are so many different ways of perceiving different qualities in our world that it’s difficult to describe something that, to me, is specific but to someone else is not.”

I immediately think of the way everyone seems to question, at least once in their life, whether people see the same colors. What if my yellow is your blue? And your blue is my white? The thought used to bother me quite a bit. I remember asking my mom about it when I was in eighth grade.

“They know.” “They” meaning scientists. She told me, “They’ve done tests for it before. There are differences between each person, but it’s not a big difference. People might see different shades or tints of the same color, but it would never be a different color entirely.”

My mom’s a scientist, but I’m not sure that she actually read any study on this because to me, Melia’s right. A researcher could run as many tests as he wishes on Melia’s brain and see which sections of her brain are triggered when she sees a letter or number and understand what causes synesthesia and why, but how could he ever know what her synesthesia looks like for her? Questions like this used to drive me crazy. A world in which the understanding of color was up for debate seemed a world that was far too unstable.

And yet, when Melia sees the letter “A,” she sees white-yellow, but she also understands that it’s an “A,” the first letter of the Roman alphabet, just as I understand that an “A” is an “A.” And when Melia sees “Star Wars” written in red, she also sees a handful of other colors, projected on top. I see the same “Star Wars” Melia sees, but I also see the ten dollars I spent on the poster. I see the Ewok my brother bought at Universal Studios when we were kids. I see my father, whose all-time favorite movies are the Star Wars movies. I see him thirty years ago, going to a movie theater to watch A New Hope, and I see a smile on his face because for the first time since he’s moved to America, he finally feels that he, at least a little bit, gets American culture. I see his excitement pulling out our VHS tapes, playing the movies for my brother and me. But I also see, “Star Wars” written in a sans-serif, wide font, printed in a vibrant red.

 

 

BIO

Laura WangLaura Wang is an undergraduate at the University of Iowa, studying English, Creative Writing, and Chinese. Laura was an Iowa Center for Research by Undergraduates Summer Fellow, in which she worked with the International Writing Program to translate Chinese literature into English. She has participated in readings throughout Iowa City and presented at the Upper Midwest Region Honors Conference, Midwest Undergraduate Conference in the Humanities, and the UI Fall Undergraduate Research Festival.

Kyle Mustain

The Opposite of Suicide

By Kyle Mustain

 

DropCapMrockSmally first day as a substitute was six weeks after the second worst mass shooting by a single person in US history. This one took place in a school building, as many of them do anymore. There was a point during my second block, just after I had sent the students to work on their news-gathering quizzes in the computer lab—a secluded room off a small hidden hallway on the second floor of the building—when I asked myself, What would I do if there was a shooter?

I looked around the room, which had not changed much at all since I had gone to school here fifteen years ago. There was still a tube television hanging in the corner, a relic from when Channel One donated TVs to all of our public schools in the early 90s. The computers are all connected to the Internet, something perhaps less than a dozen computers in the school could do when I went here.

In this computer lab and the traditional classroom adjoining it, there seemed no obvious way to protect ourselves. We’d have to come up with something clever, like barricading the desks against the door, which swung out, not in, but the desks could block the shooter or shooters from entering the room, I guess. We’d have to hide along the walls, out of visibility from the door. But if the shooter came in from the door on the computer lab side, we’d be sitting ducks.

Maybe we could devise a way to climb down to the courtyard. The cord from the air conditioner—would it hold? It doesn’t seem too far a drop. We would have to risk broken legs just to get down to the courtyard, where the doors are locked, but made of glass. We’d have to break through them, then run out the front entrance to safety.

But how would I know it was safe on the first floor? There could be several intruders in the building, some of whom could be stationed at the front door to prevent us from escaping. Or the front entrance could be booby trapped. I wouldn’t know anything in that situation. I wouldn’t know what to do besides wait and hope the shooters don’t come into our room.

What if they did? I ask myself if I would stand in front of a gun for these young people.

 * * *

The problem was the scenario I was running through in my head was the one I’ve played out hundreds of times: two shooters, running through the hallways, tossing homemade bombs, firing sawed-off shotguns. I was eighteen when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold went to their high school one Tuesday morning and proceeded to kill twelve of their classmates, one teacher, and injured twenty-four others.

The Columbine massacre was the first mass shooting of its kind. Not the first school shooting, by any means. Those happened quite frequently in the late nineties. But Harris and Klebold’s massacre was the first to play out over live TV. In real time. It happened on April 20th, which just so happens to be a pot-smoking holiday. Eric and Dylan’s attack on their high school and 4/20 was purely coincidental. So is the fact that Hitler’s birthday is April 20th. None of these things had anything to do with the other.

Harris was the brains behind the operation. He had been planning the massacre for eighteen months. It was supposed to happen on April 19th, the Monday after Prom. Eric and Dylan had to wait one extra day, though, for their friend to come through with one more box of bullets, and perhaps they also, understandably, had a case of cold feet. If the massacre had occurred on April 19th instead of April 20th, there would be no inclination of the media to speculate it had some cryptic link to Nazism or Weed.

Eric picked the date of April 19th, 1999 because it was the fourth anniversary of the largest domestic terrorist bombing in US history at the Alfred P Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City. The Columbine massacre was never meant to be a school shooting. Eric and Dylan were equipped with guns just in case they had to shoot people, but their intention had always been to blow up the building. They wanted to outdo the Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 people. They hoped the bombs inside Columbine would kill hundreds more.

  * * *

After my first day as a sub I learned to relax. My teaching style, or “subbing” style, more accurately, is laid back. I moved back to my hometown during my last semester of grad school, and started doing this because the school district was hurting for subs. I never thought I would go into teaching, in fact I had terrible anxiety about it, but not seeing how else I was going to make a living, I registered. All that registering requires is a college degree, a $149 fee, and a background check. Criminal background check. They did not check my school records.

Just after that first day, I somehow came to be known as the “cool sub.” Probably because I’m young. Although I don’t consider 32 that young. It’s probably more because I act young. But I wonder if maybe it has something to do with my experience in high school.

I was outed when I was seventeen. I had only told a handful of friends and my immediate family about my sexuality, but after a few months, that little bubble of people could no longer contain such a large secret. My best friend told his other best friend, and then he told a group of guys who decided to use it to hurt me. They showed up to school early one day, approached several gossipy girls, and enlisted them to spread the word around school that my friend Chadand I were gay for each other. I knew about this ahead of time because they phoned me the night before to inform me “the whole school” was about to find out about me.

I don’t remember that day very clearly, as I’m sure no one under such duress would choose to hold on to such an experience. The only details I can recall are that by second period I started noticing people looking at me differently. By third period people who I usually said “Hey” to every day looked away from me. That much was to be expected, I guess. But what really took me by surprise was how the faculty reacted, which was exactly the same as the students—whispers and funny looks. From that day forward I was not taken seriously as a student anymore. That was how the remainder of my high school experience played out. This whole school turned its back on me.

I started skipping school. I got high all the time. I got in fights. I got suspended. I called a teacher a bitch to her face. I quit all my extracurricular activities.My grades didn’t just slump, they plummeted. After the first time I was arrested, the rest of my teachers were pretty much done with me. I became a pariah. My friends’ parents didn’t want them hanging out with me. I graduated early my senior year.

The thing is, I wasn’t alone. My class held the record for the most studentsto graduate at midterm from my high school. The school district responded the next year by changing the requirements for graduation, rendering it harder for students to graduate early, because it looked bad that so many of us wanted out of school. They did this instead of asking themselves why we fled.

My teenage years were a lot of seriously undue stress and bullshit. They really didn’t have to be. I was so disaffected by mine, I was on antidepressants from the age of 16 to 25. The other day I had to yell at a class to be quiet after the bell rang, and it dawned on me that ten years ago I would have been so numb from meds, raising my voice like that would have been a herculean effort for me. What I’m getting at is it took me years to become an adult. I spent the first half of my twenties getting over shit that happened to me in high school. It doesn’t have to be this way.

  * * *

The next time I subbed at the high school was two days after one of the senior class members got in his car under the influence of drugs and alcohol at eight-thirty in the morning on a Sunday and drove his car kamikaze-style down one of the busiest streets in town. Witnesses said he had to have been going over a hundred miles per hour by the point he lost control, ran off the road into a vacant parking lot, hit an embankment, went airborne, rolled and was ejected from the vehicle. He was declared dead four hours later at a nearby hospital.

Everyone was calling it a suicide. It had to have been. But why so close to graduation?

That was only my second time subbing at the high school, and it was for the same teacher. The first thing I did when I got in that morning was check to see if the young man who died had been in any of the classes I had subbed for. He hadn’t been, but the teacher had circled the photos of the students on the class roster who had been friends with him and left instructions that they had each taken the past couple days off school, that they were to be excused if they asked to go to the nurse, no questions asked. I noted to myself how they all kind of looked like him. Long hair, jaded. I mean jaded to the point it is humorous how unmistakable it is.

Who’s taking care of these kids?

  * * *

Eric and Dylan went into the building with their guns only after the large bombs they’d planted in the cafeteria didn’t detonate. Ideally the explosions would have caused the commons area over the cafeteria to collapse, burying the inhabitants inside. The bombs were supposed to cause structural damage and start fires throughout the building, killing hundreds within minutes. Eric and Dylan were going to perch themselves outside with their guns, and pick people off one by one as they tried to reach safety outside of the burning building.

Reading about Eric and Dylan, I see a lot of similarities between them and some guys I grew up with, who beginning in middle school started becoming outcasts. By the time we were in high school these guys and other guys and girls like them came together and they all gradually got into punk rock, thrash metal, death metal, hardcore hip-hop, hardcore techno, industrial, etc. Although these sub-genres of rock have their rivalries, they share the core emotion, which is anger; deep-seated anger that seeks to expose the injustices and hypocrisies of the system within which we live. That kind of cynicism is something that comes about once a person has been thrust outside the status quo.

This group of guys I knew started wearing black leather jackets. They decided since they were social outcasts, then their clothes had to be in open defiance of what our classmates wore.

In retrospect I realize they were part of the popular clique in the beginning of middle school, but as time progressed and cliques began to solidify, these guys were phased out of the clique. They used to get invited to all the popular parties, sit with us at sporting events, but then something just happened. A turn came about in middle school when these guys were no longer invited to things, and it totally wasn’t by their own volition. It was the popular kids deciding to not ask them around anymore. I think it was because they were considered not as good-looking, and a little too awkward around members of the opposite sex. Their tastes in movies, music, and popular culture were not as “advanced.” They were still into comic books and toys when other guys were making the shift to popular music, gold necklaces, and cologne. These guys got left behind. That scorn manifested into rage.

They acted out violently, but it was subdued. They started drinking at a younger age than everybody else, and drank more often. They mostly hung around each other, didn’t have much interest in traditional courtship rituals such as “going steady,” “Homecoming,” and “date rape.” They were just punks. A typical Friday night for them would have been a shared bottle of cheap vodka and some petty vandalism. Telling the world to go fuck itself.

That’s how Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold and their group of friends were. That’s how they were treated by their peers, and that’s how they came to be that way. I see that all the time. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. People who go through that kind of ostracism from their peers, while they do suffer severe angst, it builds them into the people they will become. Many of these outsiders will use that pain to branch out from their peers. We need the radicals. We just need a better way of showing them they have a function in society. By we, I mean teachers. We must not make enemies of our outsider students.

  * * *

At the beginning of the new school year, a teacher requested for me to be his substitute for a week while he went out of state for his daughter to have a lifesaving surgery. I had by this point gained a glowing reputation with both students and teachers alike. It meant a lot to me that he thought to ask me to take over for him during such a sensitive time for his family. It was a weeklong subbing job, and I decided I was going to really devote myself to being an almost-full-time teacher.

Before the morning bell on the second day of the job, a student came into my classroom and asked me if I found his shirt offensive. It was brown-orange—the color of a basketball—and said in black letters: BALL EVERY DAY. A Nike Swoosh hung at the end of the sentence like a punctuation mark.

I thought it over. Testicle every day? I asked him in a protective way, “Are people calling you gay?”

He answered, “No.” He clearly didn’t see how the shirt was offensive, either.

“Then I don’t see anything wrong with it,” I told him.

Then he told me it was a teacher, not a student who was offended by the shirt. She told him to turn it inside-out. He asked me if he had to. I told him as long as he was in my class he didn’t have to. Then I rolled up my sleeves and told him an anecdote about the same thing happening to me when I was his age. I had worn a shirt that said WHAT THE HELL YOU LOOKING AT? to school several times, without bothering anyone. Most teachers didn’t even notice it. Some even thought it was funny. But all it took was one teacher who disagreed with the word “hell” and I wasn’t allowed to wear it to school anymore.

“So just lay low for the rest of the day,” I told him, “Make sure that specific teacher doesn’t see you again.” We had a laugh about it. I felt like we had established a bond.

As the first warning bell was sounding, the door at the back of the classroom swung open. The teacher from the next room was standing in the storage area that connected our classrooms. She’s a middle-aged woman I had found very accommodating over the past two days of the job. We’d even palled around a little between classes. She waved me over.

When I got to the back of the room, she leaned over and whispered, “Your student Diego is wearing a shirt that has a double entendre on it.” She sounded like she felt smart for using the term double entendre, like we were using some kind of secret adult code.

“Yeah, I saw, it,” I answered, “BALL EVERY DAY?”

“Yes!” she inflected outrage through her whisper-voice, and looked at me like I was supposed to feel outraged too.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t see it,” I told her.

She assured me, “It’s a double entendre. You’ve got to make him turn it inside-out.”

I couldn’t help making an annoyed face, because this was truly annoying. I knew she was wrong. But I nodded and said, “Okay.” I sent the poor guy to his counselor because it’s my job. I don’t have the authority to go up against an actual teacher.

A minute later I was suffering through the “Moment of Silence” and “Pledge of Allegiance.” Anyone with eyes and ears can scan a classroom and tell who is into it and who is not. The girl with the blond ponytail and the shirt with 1 JOHN 4:14 looks severely into “The Moment of Silence,” belts out “The Pledge.” The boy with the dark circles under his eyes and the CALL OF DUTY: BLACK OPS hoodie puts his head down reluctantly during “The Moment,” yawns through “The Pledge.”

Sometimes I look down during “The Moment,” out of respect for whatever it is I’m supposed to be paying respect to. Other times I walk silently about the room, handing out papers. I’m not in any violation. “The Moment of Silence” is not mandatory. I usually do “The Pledge,” although I don’t know why. Partly to check if I still have it memorized after all these years, but also because I like to analyze how aesthetically unappealing of poem it is—Is it even a poem? “The Pledge,” in its staccato cadence has a braiwashy vibe to it I didn’t catch onto when I was younger. Forcing people to say it every day sounds like something out of a Hitler Youth manual. Even if we don’t have to say it, the words get into our brains like a bad pop song.

I don’t remember having to say “The Pledge” after the fourth or fifth grade. There seems to have been a resurgence of interest in it after the turn of the century. There was no such thing as a daily “Moment of Silence” when I was student, either. These poor young people. I had it so much better than them.

All these two rituals do is create two minutes of awkwardness for the two thousand people standing in the school, parsing us into our ideological groups before we even have a chance to begin what should be the impartial process of education. They only take about two minutes, but these are the two minutes that start off our day.

I scanned the shirts people were wearing: Duck Dynasty, Sons of Anarchy, Monster Energy Drink, DRIVEN TO WIN, AINT NOBODY GOT TIME FOR THAT, SWAG OVER EVERYTHING. One girl was wearing a memorial t-shirt for the student who committed suicide the previous spring. The shirt of the boy next to her said NO TURNING BACK. Another had a drawing of a dog with a musical note coming out of its behind. The musical note was upside-down.

I located The School District’s Dress Code hangingon the wall behind me. It is posted in every classroom. And it’s vague. I’m guessing intentionally so. What constitutes pajamas? There was a girl right in front of me wearing a teal hoodie and gray sweatpants, which are essentially what I wear to bed in the winter. Should I bust her for looking like a slob? Why would someone do such a thing to someone else? To exert my power over her? Be an asshole just because I can?

The boy who had the BALL EVERY DAY shirt came back in with a shirt that had the high school mascot on it. It was creased like it just came out of a package. I gave him a sympathetic look. Oddly enough, just fifteen minutes before the incident, Diego and I had bumped into each other on the way to school. He had yelled out to me, “Hey, Mr. Mustain!” as he was crossing the street adjacent to me. We biked together for half a block. He asked what we were doing in class that day. “Just watching a movie,” I said, then apologized that I had to speed ahead because I was running late.

He seemed like a cool enough kid. I’m guessing his shirt meant he likes to play basketball every day because he enjoys it, even though he isn’t good enough to play on the school team. Plus he bikes to school. Hardly anyone does anymore. I’ve never seen more than ten bikes on the rack in front of the school. Ten people out of two thousand bike to school. Diego isn’t lazy.

I was pulling the TV cart away from the wall and putting the MythBusters DVD into the player when the vice principal showed up outside my door. I feigned a smile at her, and gave a, “What can I do for you, Ms. Fra—,” then corrected myself, “Mrs. Bennedetti.” I almost always call her by her maiden name, the name she went by when I was in school here.

She waved me over without making a sound. That’s a surefire way to clue everyone in on the fact that she has something to say to me that the students aren’t allowed to hear.

“I just received an e-mail from Mrs. Frega telling me that one of your students was wearing a T-shirt that has a double entendre on it.”

FUCK MY LIFE

“Uh-huh.”

“Did you make him turn it inside-out?”

“He asked to go to his guidance counselor. When he came back he was wearing a different t-shirt.”

“Okay, great! Thanks for helping out!” She always tells me, “Thanks for helping out!” whenever she sees me. It makes me feel like I don’t actually work here.

She came from the office, in the front of the school, to the science hall, which is in the back of the building, just to make sure I, the substitute, was following orders.

After Vice Principal Bennedetti left, I turned on the Mythbusters DVD, and headed to the back of the room with my coffee thermos and notebook. I started recording everything that had just transpired because I was fuming pissed. I put two things together from Mrs. Bennedetti’s visit to my classroom. Number one, Mrs. Frega must have e-mailed her with concern that I was not being compliant. Number two was that Mrs. Bennedetti might have come to dig up old grudges with me.

I sat in the back of the room so the students couldn’t see how tense I was. I was holding myself back from overturning the table, screaming, maybe even bursting into tears. Instead I sat and stewed and couldn’t help but stare at the back of a young girl’s bright orange t-shirt saying to me: WHAT KIND OF A PERSON ARE YOU?

  * * *

Eric Harris was a psychopathic murderer with a god-complex. Dylan Klebold was a depressive who sometimes lashed out violently. Eric was a charismatic manipulator who told people exactly what they wanted to hear. Dylan wanted to be noticed. He wanted to fall in love, got his heart broken over and over again. Eric wanted to fuck girls. Eric hated everyone, probably even Dylan. Dylan planned to commit suicide. Eric wanted to annihilate mankind. Dylan had brown hair. Eric was blond. Dylan was good at a lot of things, among them writing stories. Eric was a genius.

I was a depressive. I laid in bed for hours at a time listening to sad songs on repeat. I was addicted to sadness. All I wanted was for someone to understand me. Every time I reached out to someone I thought maybe did, it ended in more disappointment. I realized I was gay by the age of twelve, but I tried to push it out of my thoughts. I felt guilty about it. Thought I could overcome it. I thought I was going to go to hell. Getting over that self-hatred is a process that takes several years. There is no doubt in my mind that has a long-term effect on a person’s psyche.

The night after the whole world found out I was gay I went up to my room, turned off the lights, unplugged my alarm clock and VCR to make the room the darkest it could get. I laid under the covers, crying in cold sweat. I wanted to kill myself. But that wasn’t really anything new. I had been having that fight with myself off and on since the age of twelve, and I’d gotten quite good at talking myself out of it. Although this time the pressure was more extreme, more public. I guess it would have made a statement if I killed myself, but that felt too much like what people would have expected from me. Like, oh god, the guys who outed me would have to live the rest of their lives with that terrible thing hanging over their heads. But who would be the real loser in that situation? Me! I still wanted to fucking live, damn it! That would have sucked for my family too, but really at that moment I was probably thinking my family could go fuck themselves, too. All that mattered was what was going on in my life, at that very moment, and how I was going to get out of it alive.

I probably spent at least an hour fantasizing about taking guns to school. My dad has several. I knew where he hid them and where he kept the bullets. That would have been really fucking easy. In fact, it would be so fucking easy to shoot up a school it’s a fucking joke. I laid there going over the fantasy in my head, playing it over and over in different scenarios. Which door should I go in? Which hallway would I see the most people I hated? Was I going to kill just Nate and Scott, or should I go all-out and try to take out as many people as I could? I would have to—just have to—take out the administrators. Otherwise what would be the point?

Every time I went over it, it got more and more complicated. There was no way it would have transpired as good as the way it worked in my dark little day dreams. I knew how that all worked out, the fantasizing of things. The two times I’d had sex were revolting, awkward affairs, nowhere near as good as the hundreds of suave, silky scenarios I’d been masturbating to for the better part of a decade. The two times I’d had sex were so bad I never thought back to them, pushed them far into the deep catacombs of my mind. I understood that fantasies are idealized realities. Perfection is a fantasy. That’s what makes fantasies so special over reality: we can perfect them, easily. Reality takes hard work if you want to realize your fantasies, or at least come close.

In bed that night I understood shooting up the school was going to take a lot of hard work and planning. I’d have to learn to use a gun, build bombs, rehearse, and get my body in shape and shit. I’d have to enlist some friends to help out, and all that seduction over to the dark side shit would have taken a lot of mental preparation. It was a long term solution for a short term problem.

As I was still lying in the pitch dark of my room, I forced myself to start thinking more positively. There had to be a better way out of this; a way to knock those bastards on their asses and dispel the rumor about me. It’s hard to explain sparks of inspiration, where they come from. I think lying there in bed and going through all the bloody scenarios, the really dark shit, was necessary for me to gradually climb up out of and find the positive solution.

As the plan started to come together in my mind, I sat up in bed, after what was probably two hours of sulking. I switched on the lights, plugged my appliances back in, and got to work.

  * * *

Nearing the end of the first block it dawned on me what the boldest, most fitting course of action should be: I should ask Diego if I can buy the BALL EVERY DAY shirt from him.

Do I put it on right then? No, I better take it home and wash it. Wear it tomorrow? No, I have two more days on this subbing job. I need this whole paycheck. Friday. I’ll put it on just before first block begins. The students will love it. By second block they’ll spread it around. “Mr. Mustain is wearing a t-shirt that a teacher told a student he couldn’t wear!” How fast will the teachers start reporting me? Will the principal come during second or third block, or will I make it all the way to fourth? Will he pull me out of class and replace me with a faculty member or an administrator? Will they bring the police? Will I be led out of school in handcuffs?

I don’t put anything past them.

There will be an article in the newspaper. Reporters will call me for a statement. Will it go beyond the town? National news? Bill O’Reilly? Rachel Maddow?

Before anything like that happens, I’ll have to deal with the town. Immediate firing. That I can count on. But then there would be the public shunning. I’ll probably have to cancel my membership to the YMCA after all the scornful looks and fathomable vandalism to the things in my locker. I know those gestures won’t hurt me or bother me as much as the looks of sympathy I’d get from other people; people who agree with me, but don’t want to stand by me; not what I did.

I can’t do it. I need this job too badly.

I resign to push it down. Think of the money. Pick your battles. Forget about it and think about the lesson plans for the next two days. I’ll look for another job. Maybe this frustration is a sign it’s time to move on. Maybe I’m not cut out for this.

The back of that girl’s fucking shirt keeps asking me:

WHAT KIND OF A PERSON ARE YOU?

            * * *

All three of us were journal writers. Eric called his “The Book of God.” Dylan titled each of his entries individually, and were structured like mine: name, date and title in the righthand margin, then title again, centered above the text. I titled mine, “Final Thoughts,” a morbid joke that they all would add up to one epic suicide note.

I want to say we just wrote about the same themes, that I didn’t go to the extreme Eric did, but the thing is I explored my dark side thoroughly. So did a lot of my friends. In fact I’m willing to bet most adolescent boys have secret projects. One student showed me YouTube videos of some BMX ramps he and his friends built. That reminded me of when my younger brother and his friends made improvised horror films and one summer even built a wrestling ring complete with ropes in our parents’ backyard. Some of my friends in high school found a bunch of dead squirrels and made a funny video of a hand puppet beating them up. They would show it at parties. Those are all ways we burned off some innate hunger for violence. Sure some of them were unsettling, but they were within the bounds of reason.

Eric was really into the German hardcore techno band KMFDM[1]. Eric and Dylan may have listened to Marilyn Manson, but his music had nowhere near the influence over them that the media made it out to be. That gives Marilyn Manson way too much credit. Come on. Eric and Dylan were too smart to buy into that.

I’ve been listening to the early KMFDM albums Eric and Dylan would have listened to. The lyrics seem very pointed. If I had to hazard a guess, the lyrics of their first album must be directed at a handful of specific individuals. The same as Eric or Dylan’s journals would have been. The same as most people’s journals are at that age. When a person writes a love poem, it is generally towards one person, right? We’ve all had unrequited love, right? So when one writes rage poems, they must be no different. They are probably very often towards a specific target. Can we call it unrequited rage? How about unfulfillable rage? Somebody you never got to kill or do some kind of terrible harm to, whether physical or psychological. I don’t see this as being indicative of psychopathic behavior. I think it’s venting. It’s channeling rage into creative energy. It’s sublimation. Isn’t this is why we create art;to feel like we have obtained things which are unobtainable?

Because I am a writer, I wrote. Because I am a depressive, I didn’t share my stories. But I wanted the world to end, thought everyone needed to die so I could start humanity over again, my way. I just never took it to the next level. I wanted to kill people, but I have never killed anyone. I never even got as far as plotting a murder. I grew out of it. It wore off. Somehow. But what I can’t help wondering about, sifting through all the information I can gather about Dylan and Eric, is what series of events could have possibly led to me deciding to make my fantasy a reality? What would have pushed me over to fully functioning homicidal artist?

  * * *

In the hall the other day a young man walked by me, mimed like he was holding a shotgun, took aim at me through his sites, then threw his shoulders back from the imaginary gun’s blowback. His lips puckered, let out a “poof.” This is not even a student who I’ve had to discipline. This is one of the ones I get along with.

Some students joked about finding their Math teacher’s house and toilet papering it. He joked back, “If you do find my house, let me warn you, I do support the Second Amendment.” He more or less told a group of 14 year-olds that he would shoot them if they came on his property and threatened to ruin his Saturday.

The school secretary and Bennedetti were excited, describing the reconstruction of the high school in the next town over. These two were gawking out, jaws agape, eyes wide. I asked what the big deal was. The secretary answered, “All of the hallways are going to be curved.”

“Well that sounds pretty fancy,” I said, expecting this to be a discussion of the artistry of interior design.

The secretary added, “It’s so the shooters won’t have a straight shot at anyone.”

I looked puzzled.

“So when people are running from them, they will be going along the curve instead of straight. They’ll keep turning and it will be harder for the shooters to aim.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day wasted 5-10 minutes of every class in the entire school district. It came off as a shameless PR ploy by the School Board in the weeks following the George Zimmerman verdict to proclaim: “We’re not racists.” The school board is composed of middle-aged, upper middle-class white people.

We spend more time telling kids to stay away from drugs, alcohol, and smoking than we do teaching them how to identify the lower half of the periodic table of elements.

When teaching a shop class a student asked me in front of the entire class what kind of cigarettes I smoke. I made a snap judgement, decided that I admired his boldness, and gave him an answer. Then I asked him which brand he smoked, and everyone in the class announced which brands they liked. We discussed the qualities of all the different brands. I urged them if they had the extra money, to get American Spirits because they lacked the harmful additives other tobacco companies put into their cigarettes, but I understand how expensive they are. The rest of that block went smoothly. I won them over by not pretending to be something I’m not, something above them. They respected me for my candor.

I noticed a boy texting one day. He asked what my cellphone policy was. The school’s cellphone policy is gestapo-esque. Something like I’m supposed to seize it from him. Second offense is automatic suspension. Each teacher has her own policy, though. We had just taken a test and had literally nothing to do to fill up the rest of class time, so I really didn’t care. Why not let them play around? Why jump to the assumption they’re doing something sinister with them? I’ve seen just as many students reading the news on their phones or exploring Reddit as I have playing video games. I have never caught a student watching porn.

Then he said to me, “I’m actually texting my mom.” That seemed unexpected, but it was better than his buddy waiting outside with the artillery.

What was he texting his mom about? That morning on his drive to school he thought he saw his friend out of the corner of his eye, sitting in the shotgun seat next to him. He had been friends with the boy who killed himself last spring.

He had hesitated telling me, but for some reason decided I was someone he could tell this to. He had hair down to his neck, black baggy jeans with a chain wallet, and the emblem of some alien-themed band on his charcoal shirt. He told me he sees his friend all the time and it freaks him out. “What does it mean?” he asked me.

I told him, “Just the other day, I thought of something really funny that my good friend and I used to say. An inside joke we had, right? Well, I pulled my phone out of my pocket, and I was just about to text him when I realized I don’t even have him in my contacts. He committed suicide twelve years ago. He died before there even was such a thing as text messaging, and yet the other day I tried to send him a text. I guess what I’m saying, man, is it never really goes away.” I gave him the best possible answer I could give him, which was the one that was not fully thought out.

I haven’t talked to him since that day, but I see him in the halls every now and then. He usually looks pretty happy. A young person’s mood can switch on and off like a light bulb, though. I remember that. I have no way of knowing if what I said that day helped him. I just wait for moments like that to happen.

            * * *

Brooks Brown was Dylan Klebold’s best friend until Eric Harris moved to Columbine in middle school. For a while they were a threesome, but Eric didn’t like Brooks, and a tug-of-war was waged over Dylan. Brooks remained on-again, off-again friends with the pair in the intervening years, but it was clear Eric had won Dylan.

After the massacre, Brooks was contacted by a young journalist named Rob Merritt, who felt empathetic to Brooks’ plight to get his story out about Eric and Dylan. Three years after the attack they published a book about Columbine from his point of view. It’s a fascinating dynamic these two have. Merritt is four or five years older than Brooks, Eric and Dylan, so he was not far removed from the experience of high school when the attack occurred. And he seems to have the same taste in popular culture and worldview as them (Insane Clown Posse is mentioned a lot).

Merritt’s teaming up with Brown doesn’t feel exploitive. Instead the book reads like a better-educated, better-connected older brother, just a few years more mature than the younger brother, coming in to lend a hand and help him tell his story in a structured, presentable manner. It’s biased as hell, but how could it not be? Brooks was indirectly involved in the massacre just from being good friends with Eric and Dylan. He was notoriously the only person Eric told to leave before they planted the bombs in the cafeteria. Eric spared him because he was a kindred soul.

If you want a clearer picture of what was going on with Eric and Dylan, then you cannot ignore what Brooks has to say:

 

“The problem was that the bullies were popular with the administration. Meanwhile, we were the ‘trouble kids’ because we didn’t seem to fit in with the grand order of things. Kids who played football were doing what you’re supposed to do in high school. Kids like us, who dressed a little differently and were into different things, made teachers nervous. They weren’t interested in reaching out to us. They wanted to keep us at arm’s length, and if they had the chance to take us down, they would.”

  * * *

He describes a school where teachers got swept up in the jock-nerd-normal-freak-popular-unpopular-cool-uncool paradigm, and argues that while Eric and Dylan were responsible for their own atrocious actions, “Columbine [was] responsible for creating Eric and Dylan.”

Brown and Merritt spend a lot of time speculating about “The Basement Tapes.” The police confiscated videotapes with approximately three hours of footage of Eric and Dylan outfitting themselves, testing out their weapons, and leaving behind testimonials explaining why they were going to attack the school. The Basement Tapes—named because most of the footage was shot in their basements—have never been released to the public. Only select members of the press have seen them, and Brooks Brown’s mother and father, who were not invited to the screening, but barged their way in, threatening court action if they were not allowed to watch.

The Jefferson County sheriff’s department’s transcripts of The Basement Tapes can now be found online, but the entire footage still remains locked away. This is a description of part of the second Basement Tape from the Rocky Mountain News “War Is War,” December 13, 1999:

They explain over and over why they want to kill as many people as they can. Kids taunted them in elementary school, in middle school, in high school. Adults wouldn’t let them strike back, to fight their tormentors, the way such disputes once were settled in schoolyards. So they gritted their teeth. And their rage grew. “It’s humanity,” Klebold says, flipping an obscene gesture toward the camera. “Look at what you made,” he tells the world. “You’re fucking shit, you humans, and you deserve to die.” … They speak at length about all the people who wronged them. “You’ve given us shit for years,” Klebold says. “You’re fucking going to pay for all the shit. We don’t give a shit because we’re going to die doing it.”

  * * *

Eric and Dylan planned to die in the attack.

This is Brooks’ description of the video, secondhand from his mother’s account of it:

Dylan asks Eric if he thinks the cops will listen to the entire video. Eric replies that he believes the cops will chop the video up into little pieces, “and the police will just show the public what they want it to look like.” They suggest delivering the videos to TV stations right before the attack. After all, they want people to know that they feel they have reasons.

“We are but aren’t psycho,” they say.

Dylan promises his parents that there was nothing they could have done to stop him. According to the Rocky Mountain News article “War Is War,” “You can’t understand what we feel,” he says. “You can’t understand, no matter how much you think you can.”

The Rocky Mountain News quoted Eric as offering praise for his parents. “My parents are the best fucking parents I have ever known,” he says. “My dad is great. I wish I was a fucking sociopath so I don’t have any remorse, but I do. This is going to tear them apart.They will never forget it.”

According to police reports, Eric expresses regret on another tape as well. He recorded one segment while driving alone in his car. “It’s a weird feeling, knowing you’re going to be dead in two and a half weeks,” he says to the camera. He talks about the co-workers he will miss, and says he wishes he could have revisited Michigan and “old friends.” The officer who viewed this tape wrote that, “at this point he becomes silent and appears to start crying, wiping a tear from the side of his face…[H]e reaches toward the camera and shuts it off.”

Their final tape is less than two minutes long. Eric, behind the camera, tells Dylan, “Say it now.”

“Hey, Mom. Gotta go,” Dylan says to the camera. “It’s about half an hour before our little judgment day. I just wanted to apologize to you guys for any crap this might instigate as far as [inaudible] or something. Just know that I’m going to a better place than here. I didn’t like life too much and I know I’ll be happier wherever the fuck I go. So I’m gone.”

  * * *

They sound as if they had reached enlightenment. They believed they were dying for a just cause. I believe the reason the Basement Tapes have never been shown to the public is because Eric and Dylan show remorse for what they are about to do.

  * * *

Are you married? Do you have a girlfriend? Do you have a boyfriend? Do you want a boyfriend?

That’s the string of questions I get, an algorithm they’ve designed to figure out what kind of a person I am. I know it isn’t designed specifically to discover if I’m gay, but that is one of the possible outcomes. I like to think Brad, a student teacher who is 10 years younger than me, has it easy because he’s engaged to a female. But then I realize their algorithm would just lead to dozens of annoying questions about his fiancé. So maybe I am better off.

Note to self: Come up with clever, condescending answer to the question, “Do you want a boyfriend?” I get extra points if the answer is condescending because if my answer makes the question seem silly, it will cause everyone to laugh, thus putting an end to the line of questioning. I get asked about my tattoo and earrings on a daily basis. It took me six months to come up with this: “Is that a tattoo?” “No, it’s an ink bracelet.”

It’s only a matter of time before someone wises up and asks, “Have you ever had a boyfriend?” I don’t know what I would answer if a student asked me that. Do I wait to cross that bridge when I come to it, or do I prepare an answer? Why am I putting off coming up with an answer? WHAT KIND OF A PERSON AM I?

A student asked me straight-up if the teacher I was subbing for smokes pot. I told him I didn’t know her that well. When I recounted this story to my mother, she said what she would have said was, “Even if I knew, I wouldn’t tell you.” I don’t like that answer—even though it did pop into my head—because it implies that I do know. I think if Ms. X does smoke pot, then there are very few colleagues who know about it, if any. A teacher busted with marijuana would be an automatic firing, likely a career-ender. Whereas in my case, being gay is no longer a crime, but the ice on the slope upon which I tread is both thin and slippery.

I read a recent story about a cross country coach in Colorado who came out of the closet to his school board. They told him he could keep his coaching job, on the condition he no longer go into the men’s locker room while the male team members were dressing. This coach was forced to change in a men’s room separate from the locker room until the assistant coach, who identified as straight, came to tell him all the male team members were fully clothed.

I don’t understand things like that. If I go to the YMCA they don’t have a separate locker room for gay men and women. I have had to teach gym classes, and it has been expected of me to watch over the men’s locker room. Every time I think to myself, If the people in charge knew about me, they wouldn’t want me doing this. At the same time I’m also thinking, I’m not a pervert.

Young people have changed, I suppose. Highlights, earrings, hipster attire. All of the things that elicited catcalls of faggot in my day, that only the brave dared adorn in the name of fashion and individuality, are now commonplace and perhaps even worse, crafted by moms. Sure the adolescents now have been brought up in the “information age” and therefore “interface” with the world more than they experience it. They’re exposed to more sexually graphic and violent media than any generation before them. If you just talk to them, though, you’ll find out they’re not that different than we were. I don’t think anyone looked at my class in the 90s and said, “Yep, they’re exactly like the students in the 80s, 70s, 60s. Not a single thing has changed.”

The generation I am teaching have been watching Glee for the past four years, were brought up on reruns of Will & Grace. It’s not uncommon for students to come out as early as middle school. Teachers have told me to “keep an eye out” for same-sex couples holding hands, that if I catch them kissing I’m supposed to enforce the same rules we have for everybody. These teachers roll their eyes about it, say these students are simply going through “phases;” trying to get attention and piss off their parents. It’s the equivalent of what was said about interracial couples when I was in high school, which is now much more common.

I just don’t know where my place is, as a substitute. I’m not going to run into classes and announce I’m gay. But what if something gay comes up, topically, during class? Can I talk to them about my experiences as a gay man? Can I point out gay subtext in books? Or when I know an author is gay? Or historical figures? No one has ever had this conversation with me.

Let me explain how my job works. If a teacher has called in sick during the evening or early morning, the school district’s personnel coordinator will call me between six and seven-AM and ask if I am available to sub that day. We also schedule ahead of time, if a teacher has requested time off. The more I answer my phone in the morning and show that I am reliable, the more the personnel director will continue calling me. The more I teach and have favorable comments made about me from students, teachers, teaching aides, and front office workers, whomever it is I work with, the more I get called for work. My job is dependent upon my performance.

I feel good about giving back to the community. I find it immensely rewarding to help educate young people. What frightens me is ever losing my job for censorship reasons. For misspeaking. For my sociopolitical and religious beliefs, and having those misconstrued as trying to spread “perversion.”

I have a gay friend who was a teaching aide in this district just ten years ago. Some students found his online dating profile. He had listed himself as “Interested In Men.” This profile did not say anything about looking for sexual encounters. There were no photos of him naked or even shirtless. Simply listing himself as looking for a relationship with another man was enough for the school to ask him for his resignation. I just don’t know if I could handle that. Or maybe coming to that is the inevitable conclusion for this job.

I’ve heard of two high school teachers telling their classes extremely homophobic things. One told her class that homosexuality is a perversion equal to bestiality. Another told her students that homosexuals go to hell. Teachers who know well enough that many of their past and present students are gay. Some of them screaming-gay.

To the best of my knowledge, I only had one gay teacher. This individual stayed in the closet for his/her entire career. It wasn’t until the last two or three years before retirement that he/she finally opened up his/her private life to some of the faculty. Up until that point, I had always been led to believe it was an open secret. We all knew it, both students and faculty. It was just never directly addressed, unless we were making fun of him for being a fudge-packer who liked getting his fudge packed by other fudge-packers.

I get standoffish with my male students. Let’s say one takes a liking to me, wants to get to know more about me, during periods of downtime in class will stand next to my desk and want to chitchat with me. I become evasive. I’ll suddenly have other things which require my attention. I’ll act like I’m not interested in talking to him. This is because I don’t want anything to be misconstrued, even retroactively. Say like two weeks or two months or two years from now, the student finds out that I am gay and he could start to reform his memories of our chats and hear words that were not said, inflections that were not inflected.

I guess I’m afraid of the rumors starting again. How good are people’s memories, anyway? Not many of the teachers here were teaching when I was in school. Nobody has said anything to me about it. What happened to me fifteen years ago.

  * * *

The rumor Nate and Scott spread around the school was that my friend Chad and I were gay for each other. If I was going to retaliate, I had to include Chad in my plan because they slurred his name, too. Thing was, while I was actually gay, Chad wasn’t. We had been seen flirting, sure, so that was a reasonable conclusion for Nate and Scott to jump to, but Chad and I both knew it just wasn’t his thing. But, still, the rumor included him, and therefore any retaliation had to include him.

The easy way to go about fighting back would have been to spread an equally nasty rumor about Nate and Scott. Not only did I not have any dirt on them, I felt spreading more rumors would only exacerbate their animosity toward me.

What I really needed was a way to dispel the rumors about Chad and me that would also call Nate and Scott out on their shady tactic of attacking us with gossip. I wanted to call bullshit not just on the rumor, but on gossip in the grander sense. They could say anything they wanted to about me. People talk, but it’s everyone’s choice of whether to listen to gossip. The only way to know a person is to talk and interact with him.

I called Chad and pitched him my idea. We had to throw this back in their faces. Yeah, it would blow over in time, but if we were going to do something about it, now was the time. We had to strike. I wanted to do something that would get the whole school to pay attention. I wanted to make a statement.

I went out and bought two white T-shirts, and a big black marker.

The thing that surprised me was, everybody got it. People were running up to me in the hallways, asking to see the shirt, telling me to turn around and show the back. High fives, hugs. If we’d had digital cameras back then, people would have been taking photos with me. I was the most talked-about person in school for two consecutive days: one that branded me a pariah; the next I was a brave, clever, funny kid with a positive message to give the world. I walked the halls with my head held high. I smiled so much that day I could have died.

A few teachers stopped and asked to see my shirt. Most shook their heads and rolled their eyes at me. Some said they thought it was great, high-fived me. A couple of them stood together, deliberating what they should do about it, but I kept winning. The only teacher I thought I had to worry about was Mrs. Loomis, my Trigonometry teacher. We had been butting heads all year. She called me to the front of her class and asked to see the shirt. Of course I took the opportunity to show it off to the room, and gave my little speech. In large letters, covering the entire front it said: I’M STRAIGHT . . . and on the back it said . . .  CHAD ISN’T.

Mrs. Loomis asked, “Does this ‘Chad’ person know about this?” I assured her he did, and in fact he was wearing a shirt that said: I’M STRAIGHT. . . . . . KYLE ISN’T. I told her we were demonstrating against rumors. She looked annoyed, but couldn’t find anything offensive about the shirt, so she left me alone.

If I had written on the shirt, “I’m not gay…Chad is,” the word “gay” might have been too shocking. I had learned from my experience sophomore year with the teacher telling me to turn my shirt inside-out because it had the word “hell” on it. There would likely be a faculty member who found the word “gay” to be dirty, so I flipped the phrase. Also, Chad and I wearing shirts that said the same thing about each other had a canceling effect. We were both in on the joke, not attacking each other.

  * * *

Author Dave Cullen spent ten years writing Columbine, the most comprehensive account of the before, during, and after of the massacre. The book follows the stories of Dr. Fuselier, an FBI investigator whose son attended Columbine High School, and went on to put together a massive report on Harris and Klebold; Dave Sanders, the one teacher killed in the attack, who saved countless people that day; the brave principal Frank DeAngelis, who has remained at the school and retired in the spring of 2014; some of the injured students; and of course the killers themselves. But there is a conspicuous lack of teacher’s impressions of Eric and Dylan. Many moved after the massacre and understandably wanted to put it behind them.

Brooks Brown’s role in the story is underplayed by Cullen. This may be because he didn’t want to cover too much of what was already in Brown’s memoir, but there is unmistakable tension between Cullen and Brown underlying the text. He makes Brooks out to be a tattletale. When Dylan was unsure whether he wanted to go through with the bombing, he leaked information to Brooks because he knew he and his interfering mother would go to the police. Nothing ever came of their many attempts to get the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department to investigate Eric. After the massacre a search warrant for Eric Harris’s house was discovered, made out in full, but was never taken to a judge to be signed. Cullen mentions this, but doesn’t pay much respect to the Browns as the only people in the community who identified Eric as an unstable person, ready to blow any moment. Instead Cullen makes Brooks Brown out to be a media whore, overplaying the “bullying” factor in the killers’ motives.

Fuselier was fascinated with Eric’s journals. They were used as the primary documents to diagnose Eric as a psychopath. Cullen doesn’t question this diagnosis in his book. It is the popular conclusion the psychological community has signed off on. This is preposterous to begin with because how can you diagnose a person with such an extreme personality disorder without having met him? I have not been able to find anything suggesting Dr. Fuselier did any outside research. Did it ever occur to him to listen to KMFDM, and to analyze their song lyrics?

To get you to the point I’m trying to make, let me illuminate for you one more similarity between Dylan and myself: We were both big fans of the industrial band Nine Inch Nails. Dylan especially liked The Downward Spiral, which is bandleader Trent Reznor’s concept album about a protagonist contemplating, then ultimately committing suicide.

If you read my private writings from when I was a teen through my early twenties, I seemed to have adapted the style of Reznor: bleak, melodramatic, self-obsessed, yearning to find a connection to the outside world, while keeping it at arm’s length. That’s how Dylan felt. Of course the music did not cause us to feel that way. He and I were drawn to Nine Inch Nails because we already felt that way. Music helps us explore emotions that we are already experiencing.

If you were to read Eric’s journals and KMFDM’s lyrics side by side, you would find a lot of similarities. Yes, these were Eric’s original thoughts, but he was copying the aesthetic of KMFDM. His journals take on similar structure and themes, the same as Dylan and I were copying Trent Reznor’s.

A person of average intelligence will memorize a song, may write out the lyrics verbatim, the way they were given to him. A person of above average intelligence will emulate the style of song lyrics and structures to write their own.

I am in no way endorsing the theory that violent music is responsible for Eric and Dylan’s actions. If it hadn’t been KMFDM and Nine Inch Nails, they could have just as easily been reading Dante’s Inferno, Faust, or could have found violence within the music of Beethoven or Wagner. To attack art would be to attack a mirror. What I’m trying to say is Dr. Fuselier came up short for not having caught onto the fact that Eric’s rantings were invoking a style of lyricism. Eric was writing poetry. He was creating art.

Was Eric truly a psychopath? Why do I have such a hard time labeling him that? It’s because the more I look into it, the less I believe there even is such a thing as psychopathy. A recent article in Scientific American caught my attention. It’s about a new school of thought about the Belief in Pure Evil (BPE), and how it affects a person’s ethics:

According to this research, one of the central features of BPE is evil’s perceived immutability. Evil people are born evil – they cannot change. Two judgments follow from this perspective: 1) evil people cannot be rehabilitated, and 2) the eradication of evil requires only the eradication of all the evil people. Following this logic, the researchers tested the hypothesis that there would be a relationship between BPE and the desire to aggress towards and punish wrong-doers.

  * * *

Researchers have found support for this hypothesis across several papers containing multiple studies, and employing diverse methodologies. BPE predicts such effects as: harsher punishments for crimes (e.g. murder, assault, theft), stronger reported support for the death penalty, and decreased support for criminal rehabilitation. Follow-up studies corroborate these findings, showing that BPE also predicts the degree to which participants perceive the world to be dangerous and vile, the perceived need for preemptive military aggression to solve conflicts, and reported support for torture.

  * * *

Psychopathy is defined as a personality disorder which includes antisocial behavior, diminished capacity for empathy or remorse, little control over behavior, and superiority complex. They say psychopaths (which is interchangeable with “sociopath”), while lacking the human emotions of sorrow, sadness, empathy, learn at an early age how to imitate these in order to live alongside fellow human beings. Doesn’t that describe everyone?

Eric was not a psychopath until after he had already killed thirteen people and himself. Before that he was just a boy. With a strict father he loathed but respected. A mother he loved tenderly, but also found annoying. He hated the world. Hated everyone except for people who agreed with his worldview. There weren’t any, really. He probably didn’t even like Dylan that much, but knew from the start he could manipulate him. In a way Dylan was his first pipe bomb. Did Eric believe in God? I know he did. He thought he was godlike and that only he and God truly understood the world.

Eric wanted anarchy. He wanted us all to start killing each other, to arm ourselves to the teeth, to suspect our neighbors of trespasses against us, to prepare for war within our own borders, against each other. That message was received, loud and clear. Well done, Eric.

Empathy is a learned behavior. Some people may be harder to teach than others, but that doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands and say it’s pointless to try. That’s the current philosophy of our education system. We target those who are good at subjects and those who are bad, and set our focus on them, leaving the ones in the middle alone. We don’t put forth the intensity or the manpower it would require to teach everyone equally. A system that should be a stronghold of egalitarianism has been rendered a socially Darwinistic and paranoid-survivalistic state.

We need to quit being afraid of each other, to show our children how to be fearless. Instead of fortifying our schools to keep people out, we need to start letting more people in.

  * * *

After that day Nate and Scott buried their grudge against me. I heard through the grapevine that Nate decided if I was willing to go that far, then it wasn’t worth his time to mess with me anymore. Things settled down after that. People sifted through the rumors, though, and eventually came around to the truth. Nate, Scott, and the friends I’d come out to assured people I really was gay, but they had been mistaken about Chad. The rumors about Chad going away were also aided by the fact he was going around telling people I was the gay one and he didn’t know how he got roped into the rumor. He even got some of the girls he had slept with to “vouch” for him.

Eventually I realized that on the day of the t-shirts, I hadn’t seen Chad at all since I gave him a ride to school and we put the shirts on in my van. He had taken different routes to his classes to avoid me. Later I got it out of him that, “It was too cold to wear just a t-shirt that day.” He had covered it up with a sweatshirt. He still “technically” wore it. Like that meant anything.

Things did not get better. People quit inviting me to parties. The mutual friends I had with Nate and Scott had to decide who they were going to hang out with. It wasn’t so much a question of loyalty as it was whether they wanted to hang out with the cool guys, or the gay guy who took things a little too far.

The rumor happened about three weeks after I had come out to my family. When Scott called me to warn me “the whole school” was about to find out I was gay, I told my parents about it. We discussed possibly dropping out and getting a GED, maybe going to live with my uncle and enrolling in school there. I decided I would brave it out. I didn’t want to “run away from my problems.” But now when I think back, returning to that school day after day did something to me.

The next fall I went back to school a broken person. I quit all of my activities. Classes were a joke to me. In November I was arrested for possession of alcohol and five counts of drug paraphernalia.

The next morning I went to swimming class early and told my teacher, Mr. Tobias about my arrest. I wanted him to hear it from me before he read about it in the paper. He was the only teacher I had left whom I felt like I got any respect from. He gave me a short, impromptu speech about how this was going to be a “dark mark” on my life and I would have to work hard to restore people’s faith in me.

The next day, after it was in the paper, I saw my sophomore year biology teacher, Mr. Levin in the library. He yelled, “Get over here!,” put me in a headlock, said, “You’re going to shut up and you’re going to listen to me. You fucked up. You know that, don’t you? Nod your head if you understand. Now you’re going to quit fucking up, right?”

Those two were the only teachers who said anything to me about it at all. It was hard to live up to either of their advice in the short term. I made a swift decision to graduate early.

My swan song to high school was my final report card. It read: ABCDF. I orchestrated that. I knew exactly how much effort to put into each class to get the grade that I wanted. It was a joke I’m sure at the time only I found funny. A joke on how arbitrary grades are. A joke on my younger self for my goal to get straight-A’s all through high school. My goal to be valedictorian, to earn a National Honors Scholarship. Goals that had at one point all been well within my reach.

It got worse. After I graduated I got arrested again. Alcohol again, but this time I also had marijuana in my possession, not just paraphernalia. I lost my job as a lifeguard. My employers had overlooked the first arrest because I went to Teen Court, did community service, and proved I was clean by passing a drug test.

At the end of my first semester of college I flunked all of my classes, dropped down to two classes my second semester, and just barely passed those. I was so jaded by my high school experience that I lost all work ethic and still held onto hostility toward educational institutions, even while I was attending a completely different, much more accepting one. This behavior continued well into my twenties, as I slowly built myself back into a semblance of the student I used to be, albeit a deeply scarred one.

I know I’m being maudlin about my experience, but keep in mind I’m telling it to you the way I have told it to myself over and over again. I want to take full responsibility for my fucking everything up, but I know it wasn’t completely my fault. The school failed me. My parents noticed all of this as I was quite oblivious to where the school was not doing its job. The year after I graduated my father even wrote a letter to the school board, urging them to scrap their oppressive Secondary Code of Conduct:

[Kyle] went from being tied for first in his class at the end of his freshman year to 94th ….the administrative support for students at the front office does not exist except for scheduling and discipline. What appears to be so obvious a need and so simple to implement keeps on going unattended year after year! All that happens is progress in making new rules to discourage kids or get them to drop out or graduate early.

My daughter has recently started working for teen court. In the short time she has been there she has noticed a pattern of kids in trouble with the law. A frequent beginning is a kid getting into trouble at school. An example is too many tardies resulting in ISSP[2] and sometimes the punishment has been 3 ISSPs. During ISSP many teachers do not cooperate in giving homework or make-up work. The result has been in many cases the student going from B – A student to D – F. Once that happens, the student is discouraged and the risk of dropping out increases. After Kyle was arrested, my review of the facts of the arrest led me to the conclusion that he could have easily prevailed in criminal court because of many factors based upon his constitutional rights and the statutes. Basically, the arrest should not have occurred. We chose not to fight the charges. Nonetheless, Kyle, a kid who needs help and encouragement, was suspended for 30 days from all activities. When receiving his sentence from the school district, I asked what suggestions the district representative had for helping Kyle get back on track. The school representative’s response was “Kyle is trying to find himself.” No suggestions were offered i.e. that is your problem not ours.

  * * *

I’m not trying to say school officials had to cater to my every need. But what my dad and I are trying to understand is what good is coming from what they are doing?

I didn’t need to be medicated. I know that much. I needed someone to take an interest in me. I needed a support system to check up on me, to let me express what I was going through.

A couple years ago I got together with my freshman year English teacher. We spent three hours one afternoon, talking over coffee. I told her early in the conversation that I was gay, and that I am very concerned about the nation’s recent spike in teenage suicide. Then I brought up the weekly journals she assigned, that were an open source for all of her students to write about things that were on their minds. My parents saved all of their children’s important schoolwork, and I had recently gone through all of mine. I read through all the journals I had written for Miss Schneider, even transcribed them to my computer.

Reading them as an adult, it was clear to me that what I was looking at were the guarded confessions of a gay teen. Although I did not come out directly to Miss Schneider in them, I was trying to clear a path to that process. You can see me working through these questions on the page. My intense feelings for one boy in particular were the subject of many of these journals. There were entire entries about my frustration with friends who made gay jokes about me at overnights, more so than the any of the other guys in our group. They caught onto it very early. Earlier than I did.

I told all of this to Miss Schneider, in a long, multipart question I had forming for her, because I was sure she must have had some dilemma of her own, about where her place was in this matter, knowing she could lose her job if she suggested to a fifteen year old that he might be gay. Did she think about trying to simply foster me in some way, to guide me so I would figure it out for myself, all the while suggesting her classroom was a safe place for me?

Her answer disquieted me. She never had a clue. She said she doesn’t look at people “that way.” I didn’t have the spirit left to ask her what she meant by “that way.”

  * * *

I look at what Eric and Dylan did and what I did on a spectrum. On one end of the spectrum is the very worst possible thing a person can do: mass homicide; killing innocent people. Next to that would be suicide. I’m somewhere over on the other side of the spectrum. Coming out probably would have been then best possible thing I could have done, but I didn’t quite do that. I made a statement, but it was the wrong statement. I addressed it. Kept going to school. Survived. Didn’t kill anybody. Although I wanted to.

I did the thing that was right for me in that moment. I don’t know if at the age of 17 I was capable of coming totally out. I did go to high school with people who were out. Some of them had been out since grade school. They told their families. They all had time to prepare for the stormy future. Those early ones, the proud ones, they were the ones whose property got vandalized. Who got the harassing phone calls. Who went out to the parking lot every day hoping their cars weren’t vandalized again. Who couldn’t go up to the front of the classroom without hearing someone pretend to cough and say the word “dyke” or “faggot.” Who people quit making eye contact with in middle school. Who felt unsafe every day of their lives.

I also have friends who came out later than I did, who waited until college like my parents would have liked for me to have done. I also have friends my age—early thirties—who are still not out. And yes, I have known people who were out to only a few people, and decided to kill themselves instead of trying to live their lives out in the open.

The morning of Columbine was the day after my grandmother’s funeral. My family had buried both of my father’s parents in less than one week from each other. They died one after the other, within days. Bang Bang. My grandfather was my best friend. We became close over the past seven or eight years since his wife started losing her mind and was in and out of nursing homes. He died without knowing I was gay.

I had come out to my parents and older siblings a little over a year before his death, just weeks before I was outed at school. My parents instructed me to not tell my grandfather and to wait for my younger siblings to get a little bit older before I told them. In fact, my parents asked exactly how many people I had told, suggested maybe that was enough, and to refrain from telling anybody else. They were pissed this embarrassing secret had gone outside the family. To them, my belief that I was gay was something that should go through a test phase with the family first, because what if I didn’t feel the same way in five, ten years? Because then I would wish I could go back and unsay the things I had said.

How little straight people understand about what the closet is like and why we feel the need to come out. For years I debated whether my grandfather died without “knowing the real me.” I hear so many gay men say being gay is “the least interesting thing about them.” I cringe at the cliche of it, even though I agree. There are days I don’t even want it brought up in conversation, but we all know those people who always have to make it part of every conversation they have with us. No, it is not the most interesting thing about me, but I will say this: It is essential information about me. Anyone in my life who does not know it, up until the moment I tell them, our relationship has been predicated on a lie.

I feel like I am lying to my students every day. They could learn from knowing the true me. I feel like I am hiding myself from my colleagues, who could also learn from knowing the true me. Perhaps they won’t even mind that much. I haven’t given them the chance to have that discourse with me.

  * * *

My mother looked at me like she didn’t know who I was anymore. My words exactly to her were: “Don’t be surprised if this happens more often.” I said that the morning she told me there were kids shooting people at their high school. The day we now refer to as “Columbine.”

She and my father were mortified. “What do you mean?” she asked, like I knew something she didn’t. Like us teenagers were using the Internet to organize this sort of thing.

“I just mean kids are really pissed off nowadays, Mom. There’s a lot of hatred in the air at high schools. You can sense it. It doesn’t surprise me that a teenager would take a gun into his high school and shoot up the place. In fact, I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more often.”

I followed that up with, “I’m going to TJ’s.” The Columbine massacre happened on April 20th—the holiday of pot smokers. Graduated early from high school, I was living in my parents’ attic, a sexless gay eighteen year-old who had just broken up with the girl I had been dating to try to assimilate to hetero-normativity, and I had just put two of my grandparents in the ground. I was going to get high as fuck that day.

My friends and I bought a lot of weed and had a longterm plan in place for that day, but it got interrupted for the first few hours because we were watching live footage on CNN of this atrocity. We were back-and-forth watching it, trying to pull ourselves up out of it and have a good time, but at the same time acknowledging how terrifying it was and how we hoped people would survive, although we were mature enough to realize there were going to be casualties. I remember the whiteboard up against the window: 1 BLEEDING TO DEATH.

We also understood that it could have been happening to us, that one of our fellow students, somebody maybe we never even would have suspected, some kid who you never even knew his first name, could pull something like this. And that’s who we suspected these kids were.

As we watched the footage I said something even more macabre to my best friend, Mark. In complete confidence I solemnly said to him how I really felt about the massacre taking place before us on live television.

The more I sat there watching it unfold on TV, I thought back to that night, lying in my bed in my pitch dark room. How badly I wanted to do what those kids were now doing at their school. And the more I thought about it that day in 1999, I had to let it out to somebody. I leaned over to Mark, told him in total confidence, and just out of a place that I needed to let this thing out, I said, “You know those two kids in there, shooting up their school? They’ve got to be having the most fun they’ve ever had in their lives.”

  * * *

The first attack on a school in the US was in 1927. There were none between then and 1966. Between 1966 and 1999 there were 46. That is 1.39 a year.

Since April 20th, 1999 there have been 75 attacks on schools. 5.35 a year. Meaning one every 68 days. That’s one every two months since Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. That’s 3.85 times the frequency they occurred before April 20th, 1999. Attacks on schools have quadrupled in frequency since Eric and Dylan.

Overheard during the Columbine massacre: “This is what we always wanted to do. This is awesome!” “Who wants to be killed next?” “Peekaboo!”

They were laughing a lot, joking back and forth to each other from across the halls as they tossed bombs and blasted their firearms. They questioned victims, laughed sadistically at whatever they answered—everything was a joke to them by that point. There were no correct answers to save your life. Some they shot, some they left alone. Everything was random—because they still wanted to blow up the school. They picked people off for fun as they made their way to the cafeteria, where they tried to detonate the bombs manually. This failed, so they retreated to the library, where each shot himself in the head. On the count of three.

Dylan’s shirt said WRATH. Eric’s said NATURAL SELECTION.

They split a pair of black gloves. Klebold wore one on his left hand. Harris wore one on his right. No one can explain why they did this.

  * * *

Will and some of his friends and I are standing at that strange nexus between the doorway and the hall, that little space of freedom students are always inching towards at the end of a period, and it’s up to me to draw my own version of the arbitrary line they are not supposed to cross. I’ve subbed for Will four times by my count. He’s the kind of student who tries to push the boundaries in the student-teacher relationship—he was the one who asked me if the teacher I was subbing for smoked pot. Will is tall, blond, cute in an Anthony Michael Hall way, and I think he knows it. He’s smart, but hip, and his shirts are always conspicuously slogan-free.

Will asks me what my tattoo represents. I give him an honest answer: it’s an infinity symbol wrapped around my wrist. He presses, “But what does it mean to you?”

I launch into how it represents my belief in an infinite number of parallel universes. I explain: “It used to be science fiction, but now it’s a widely-accepted theory. And they even say that when parallel universes come into contact with each other, a new Big Bang occurs and a new universe is created. So Big Bangs are happening all the time all around us, but we just haven’t figured out how to detect them yet.”

“You don’t believe in God, do you?”

That clever little shit stopped me in my tracks.

I hadn’t prepared an answer to that one yet. I was immediately uncomfortable and answered, “I don’t think I should be discussing that with you.”

“Come on,” Will said, “We’ve grown past that.”

“Okay  . . .  I’m an atheist,” I said it like it was a bad thing. I almost sounded ashamed of myself. I thought about “The Moment of Silence.” I thought about the stupid fucking “Pledge of Allegiance.” I decided to clarify for Will: “Actually, I’m a hardcore atheist and I think the world would be a much better place without religion. That’s how I really feel, William.”

His little friend asked, “What’s an atheist?”

Will answered, “Atheists are people who don’t believe in anything.”

“No, no, no, no,” I stopped him emphatically, “That’s totally not what an atheist is. I just don’t believe there is such a thing as a god. I do believe in lots of things. I just told you I believe in parallel universes. I believe in quantum mechanics. I believe in science and I believe in people.”

  * * *

These are places where we spend a lot of our lives. Although these institutions tell us they are “Helping Students Achieve Their Dreams,” they tend to garner hostile, cold associations. People dread being in these places, either from the terrible things they have heard of taking place within the walls, or from the terrible things that have happened to us while we were there. Facing our horrors every day and learning to coexist with people we hate and fear is part of growing up. But it does take its toll. While they may form some of us to be strong, they render many of us weak. These environments unwittingly cultivate anomalies like Eric and Dylan.

People who lack empathy. People who spend their days telling other people what they cannot do. Don’t wear that shirt. Don’t wear so much makeup. Don’t say those words. Don’t think those things. Don’t be that way. People who live their lives upon a foundation of doublespeak. People who say they have “A Commitment to Excellence,” while they perform the exact opposite every day, as if it’s their job.

I am qualified to teach college, because I hold a master’s degree, but I am not qualified to teach K-12 because I lack the all-important degree in Education. To become a qualified teacher I would have to go back to school for two or three more years. At thirty-three I am not in a rush to do that.

At times in a classroom when I have gotten students to cooperate with me and each other, in moments of triumph, I ask myself, can I do this? Get up early every day? Make compelling lesson plans? Lead discussions and be engaged with every student? Live off a small salary? I am capable of all of it.

Will I give my life over to it?

 

 

[1]    KMFDM is an initialism for Kein Mehrheit Für Die Mitleid, loosely translated as “No pity for the majority.” False interpretations of the band’s name have been “Kidnap Madonna for Drug Money,” “Kylie Minogue Fans Don’t Masturbate,” and the one I was led to believe by my friends, “Kill Mother-Fucking Depeche Mode.”

[2]    In-School Suspension

 

BIO:

Kyle MustainKyle Mustain is a 2012 graduate of the University of North Carolina, Wilmington’s MFA program for Creative Writing, where he specialized in nonfiction.

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