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Empowering Despair

By Liza Martin

My fake ID said I was eighteen years old, and my name was Micaela. It was technically not a fake ID but a document I had found, and instead of returning it, I decided to use it as if it was my own. Micaela and I were similar, but it was pretty clear we were not the same person. For starters, I was fourteen at the time.

Not like the guards in the clubs cared. If the club was for 18+, you could expect to see only minors inside. Those who were eighteen or older went to clubs that were for 25+. The same happened with quinceañeras—you only went if you were under fifteen. Getting into places with a fake ID was especially easy for girls because girls attract boys, and boys usually pay, making it a win-win situation: we get in, and the clubs earn more money.

We liked to pretend we were older than we actually were. We wore high-waisted mini skirts way too tight with ugly crop tops that were barely enough to cover our developing bodies. We didn’t know that blending our foundation was a thing, so we walked proudly with our necks two skin tones lighter than our faces. We were lucky if we managed to do eyeliner properly without getting it in our eyes. After hours of preparation that concluded in liters of perfume and the smell of burnt hair, we were ready to go. Nothing could stop us; we were invincible. I felt invincible.

Until someone in the club touched me under my skirt.

More and more strange hands. Their skin against mine. Male bodies “dancing,” pressed against my own, offered me a couple of drinks to “let loose” and, just like that, to forget that even more hands were touching me under my clothes in that dirty, dark club.

The first time it happened, I was confused—maybe it was an accident? Yet another hand touched me, and another, and another. I tried to stop it, to call my friends, to find some help … yet when I saw my friends were also being touched and liked it, I felt ashamed. Not scared or angry—just ashamed.

Was this normal? Seeing everyone around me going through the same thing and not reacting at all made me hesitate as to whether to tell someone or do something. But it felt so wrong, and I was so uncomfortable. More and more drinks. More and more hands. Was I overreacting? I used to answer myself that yes, indeed, I was. I had to understand; that’s how it works––that’s the Latino culture. In fact, if you were lucky enough to be the target of teenage hands grabbing and caressing you, it meant you were attractive. So come on, be happy, smile, stop complaining! Enjoy the compliment and embrace your culture. Let them touch you; let them press their bodies against yours!

I saw my friends not only enjoying the harassment (as I call it now, but most definitely not how I called it then) but intentionally trying to get more of it. Noticing that only I felt uncomfortable with the situation, I thought, You are definitely the one in the wrong, Liz. I just trusted it was normal—because everyone acted as if it was.

When I look back, I always try to find a culprit, yet I always fail. It would have been easier if my parents had blamed my outfit or if my friends had explicitly said that getting touched was a compliment. I could then look back and say, “See? Look what they tell us when we are young. That’s why we acted as we did.” But the truth is, no one told us anything. That’s just not how it works—in Argentina, you learn on your own. You walk outside, and you follow the clear expectations that society places on you. You copy what others do, overhear conversations and take them personally, get punished or rewarded for your actions, and learn to survive in that savage jungle we call home.

When I was a child, during lunchtime, boys would be taught how to hammer while we were taught how to make pompoms out of wool. No one said it, but we learned that girls were weaker than boys. Boys wore pants and were allowed to wear shorts during Physical Education. We were absolutely banned from wearing shorts during P.E. but were expected to wear mandatory skirts every other day. No one said this explicitly, but we learned that girls should look attractive to look formal but never to be comfortable. In the clubs, girls don’t pay an entrance fee but are expected to express their sexuality and let strangers touch them. No one said so, but we learned that if no one touched us or pressed their bodies against us, it meant we were ugly and undesired. And all we wanted at fourteen was for someone to desire us. 


“Liza, prendé el bajón,” my mom asked. Bajón, in English “anticlimax,” is how my mom referred to the evening news—a channel where journalists exploit the suffering of others and turn horrific news into morbid entertainment. That night was no different.

A woman is murdered every 30 hours in Argentina due to sexist violence. There have been 286 femicides so far this year, and today we…

My mom turned the TV off. She knew what had happened that afternoon and couldn’t bear to hear it again. Chiara Paez, who was only fourteen, had been brutally murdered by her boyfriend after finding out she was pregnant. Fourteen. Just like me at the time, which is why my mom didn’t want to keep on listening.

But Chiara’s death was impossible to ignore. Everywhere, public demonstrations and marches arose like flowers in the spring. Women were tired—fed up with the killings and the raping, and the terrible violence that came with the curse of being a woman in Latin America.

The TV stayed off for the remainder of the week in my house.

For the first time ever, Argentina experienced a social outbreak focused specifically on sexist violence. The use of the word “femicide,” a mix of female and homicide, grew stronger as a way of explaining the murders of women at the hands of a man solely due to misogyny. A whole concept that stressed the gravity of sexism in our cultural context where gender violence and discrimination were common currency. Chiara was the final straw—Argentina couldn’t remain silent. That little girl’s assassination gave life to the Ni Una Menos movement, a feminist group that shook the country, spread to the Latin continent, and later reached North America as Me Too.

Meanwhile, all I cared about was which club I would go to on the weekend. About to turn fifteen, I was oblivious to the reality outside my bubble. I still craved the attention of those men in the clubs. I wanted to oversexualize my body and pretend to be older. I wanted to walk alone at night and dreamed about running away. And it wasn’t just me. My friends, most people my age, condoned all of those actions. While marches and demonstrations fought for a feminist future in the streets, the internal speech had not changed as quickly.

Feminists said that women were getting raped, and that mustn’t happen. At the same time, teenagers learned that being touched without consent was a compliment. Feminists said that men were killing women, but meanwhile, we were expected to seek male validation at all costs. Feminists protested and fought against Chiara’s and every other girl’s assassination. Meanwhile, the media, run by men, portrayed feminists as exaggerated and aggressive individuals. No wonder I soon started saying that feminists were crazy and that I didn’t like their modus operandi.

“Mamá, look what they’ve done!” I would say, looking at whatever thing those crazy stupid women had done that time. Like a parrot, I repeated the media’s message that feminists wanted to combat violence with more violence, which was useless and inconvenient. “I would never be part of that.”

My poor mother—she never argued about it with me. Instead, she kept silently attending those marches, patiently waiting for me to grow and join her in the fight. She knew how hard it was to wake up to the fact that feminism was not the enemy but the ally while being fed misogynistic speech and growing up in a sexist environment.

Why would I even support a movement that failed to help me? I would have loved to have had such support that first night out when I was fourteen, on my first encounter with the Latino nightlife. And yet, I had learned to accept my culture and its ways. Or worse—I had learned to like it. Why wouldn’t they do the same? Why wouldn’t they just remain silent and accept the world as it was? Why did they have to go out and destroy the streets during pointless demonstrations to change something that would never change?

My father, just like me, believed what the media portrayed. Violent women destroy public squares, wreck national monuments, vandalize governmental buildings … If we dared to talk about it during dinner, my mom would stand strong with her arguments, and a peaceful meal would turn into a heated fight. The voice of the media was louder than my mom’s during those nights. Until one day, when we opened our eyes.

The femicides had risen from one woman every thirty hours to one woman every twenty-three. During a Ni Una Menos demonstration, a group of women covered their faces with bandanas and scarves and vandalized the Cabildo of Buenos Aires, a historic building once used as the seat of the town council during the colonial period. The graffiti filled the entire wall with the names of hundreds of women who had been murdered that year, among other common feminist phrases.

“Graffitis ruin the cabildo’s facade,” “Insurgent protesters vandalize historic buildings,” “Violent demonstrators cost the city 270k pesos…” The media went wild. The Cabildo, located in the main square of the country’s capital city, had been destroyed. A building with historical value was completely ruined by inconsiderate women who were not satisfied with being allowed to protest peacefully but had the need to use violence––thus harming the innocent Argentine people.

“270,000 pesos! And this is a public building, so we will be paying that with our taxes. Outrageous!” My dad, worried about our income, had completely missed the fact that an entire wall was covered with names of girls my age who had been brutally murdered. Still young and oblivious, I had also missed the point.

“Don’t you guys see?” my mom asked. “Neither money nor the cabildo is the problem here. You can repaint the wall. You cannot bring those girls back to life.”

Suddenly, it all made sense. I felt as if someone had cleaned my pair of glasses, and the world I once saw blurry was now well-defined and clear. It felt like when one increases the brightness on a computer screen.

Feminists were not the enemy—the media was.


All around me, women dressed in green and purple chanted feminist songs that made my skin instantly flare with goosebumps. Thousands of banners and signs plagued the street. My mom, next to me, joined the women in their scream, “Never again, ni una menos!” My heart was pumping, and I felt quite overwhelmed. It was 2016, and as I attended my first march, I felt a paradigm shift in my mind.

Another girl had been killed. It had been over a year, and the femicides were still rising. I used to think feminists were unnecessarily violent. But why wouldn’t they? (Why wouldn’t we?) More than a year of peaceful protests, and what was the result? Even more femicides. How were murders, rape, and discrimination accepted but protests frowned upon?

I looked at my mom, and she smiled. Her smile delivered a clear message: among all the chaos, right there and then, we were safe. Surrounded by signs with the faces of the deceased girls, marching next to the victims’ families, and protesting against the never-ending violence, we still felt safe. There was a feeling of empowerment and belonging that was hard to put into words. We were not just individuals fighting for a cause; we were a collective—a family.

That mix of empowerment and despair remains with me to this day. I have not stopped going to demonstrations, simply because the gender-based murders and discrimination haven’t stopped either. And while it will take time to eradicate the sexist dynamics that plague my country, I can proudly say that Argentinean women were the pioneers in a movement that spread quickly through The Americas, and that, hopefully, changed the paradigm of many others who, like me, didn’t even have the word feminism in their language.


Born and raised in Mendoza, Argentina, Liza Martin left home when she turned eighteen to study for an International Baccalaureate in Thailand through the United World College program. Completely alone on a foreign continent, writing became her refuge—her therapy. Once she graduated, Liza was accepted into The University of Oklahoma on a full scholarship, where she is currently studying English Literature with a minor in Professional Writing. Being the first in her family to complete her studies abroad and the first to speak a second language, Liza aspires to represent her roots in her field of work. She writes in Spanish and English to make her art and culture accessible to both languages.

Chicken Babies

By Maza Guzmán

While in denial about my bipolar disorder, I decided, maniacally, to drive from Los Angeles to San Antonio with three baby chickens in the back of my blue Chevy Cruze. I had agreed to adopt them before my then-girlfriend put me in the hospital, and my conviction was, when I emerged a week later no less manic and much more fearful, that I could not abandon my babies, no matter what happened.

At every gas station, every motel, everywhere I could, I would crack the back windows open so that I could show off my babies to passersby, ideally children whose mothers’ eyes would widen as they pointed out one, two, three of my darlings. Once, in the parking lot of a gas station, I fully opened the door to replace their water jug, and they escaped, running under a neighboring car. I enlisted a small family, apparently familiar with chickens, in wrangling them back to my passenger side, but the adolescent chicks refused to return to the blanketed backseat, their nest, where I had poured hemp bedding in the footwells. Eventually, I developed a technique with my walking stick, using a sweeping motion to scare them back into the familiar.

The most beautiful effect of mania, I found, is the certainty, how everything makes sense. Destiny is the day’s return each and every day, until you find yourself penniless on the side of the road. It took six weeks, my mind and the wheels of a rented Tesla running fatally fast–so fast I couldn’t remember all of it. I had abandoned the Chevy in Alhambra before taking the road north to Seattle, but I did not abandon the chickens. They lasted until the end of those weeks, in the middle of the desert in Apple Valley, probably eaten and enjoyed by coyotes.

I wailed, pleading with the gods I had espoused concurrently with the chickens. These gods were neutral clowns armed with cruel jokes, ever ready to bestow lessons harshly. I had allowed my babies their freedom from the car for just one day as I attempted to purvey my clairvoyance at a cannabis convention. They had never before roamed far from their assigned bush where I set their food and water jug. But the bush proved insufficient defense against the desert’s will.

Throughout my mania, I invested my faith into a single coin–heads yes, tails no–and braced myself for the truth: were they dead? Heads–yes. Still I pleaded. I could not have guessed that just a month into the future I would be pleading for my own life, at the mercy of my own hands, as I fought suicidal instincts. But I spent that day hiking over sandy hills blooming with tiny desert flowers, searching for signs of my chicken babies and not finding even one feather.

I called the woman from La Quinta who had babysat my chickens one afternoon as I stewed in the hot tub. She had gushed about my chickens as much as I did, once a chicken mother herself. They were adorable. She assured me that coyotes would have left a mess. “Someone must have taken them,” she reassured me. “There’s no need to cry. Someone must have picked them up.”

Now when I hear the word “desert,” my heart shrinks. I think of the road, the strangers I grew attached to in my loneliness, the wild bravery desiccated and replaced by shame. A world without destiny, without a holy mandate to keep my babies alive and well, leaves me shaken with confusion over those cruel gods, now fully abandoned. How can chemicals in the brain so thoroughly change the material of your soul? I marvel at the life I led before the mania, before the chickens, when our shared reality held enough weight, enough purpose, to keep me moving through my days without hitting 106 miles per hour.


Maza Guzmán is a non-binary, multi-genre artist and writer currently living in the Chicago area while aspiring to return to Los Angeles. In 2020, they were featured in the documentary film The Art of Protest. In 2021, one of their needle-felted originals played a role in an award-winning stop-motion short. They’re currently working on a surrealist memoir, finding inspiration in space, science, queerness, and the bittersweet. They studied creative nonfiction writing at Northwestern University. This is their first publication.


By Chetan Sankar

I was coming out of my near-death experience in the Cardia Intensive Care Unit at St. Joseph’s Hospital, Atlanta, and was feeling thirsty.  Slowly, I opened my eyes completely and saw a nurse. I signaled to her to get me some water.

I looked around and saw my wife, Lakshmi.

“Hi, I am back,” I said.

She smiled and held my hand.

The nurse came back with a cup full of ice and gave me one ice cube. “This ice needs to last for an hour. You cannot drink water yet. Savor this.” I held it in my tongue and relished the feel of the ice. I twisted the ice with my tongue and savored it.

In another fifteen minutes, I wanted another cube of ice, but the nurse refused to give me one. She said, “wait an hour.”

I had taken the availability of water for granted and this incident made me reminisce about the role of water in my life from childhood to my senior years. When I performed research, I was surprised to find that currently one third of the world’s population doesn’t have access to potable water. What can we do to alleviate the suffering of these people?


Where I grew up in rural South India, I lived in an arid climate: water was scarce, the rivers near homes were barren, and the riverbeds were filled with sand rather than water. There were no town-wide water supply or sewage removal operations. We lived in towns that were at least a hundred miles away from a nearby beach. I rarely saw any large bodies of water.

I remember a house where my mom had to keep all the food items in a cabinet that rested on four stone furniture cups.  The cups were circular where the edges and the middle portions were at a height and a depression was formed between them.  Water could be poured into the cup so that ants cannot get into the cabinet. At that time, milk was procured from local herdsman who will deliver fresh milk to home. My mom used to keep it in a dish and cover it with a lid. If we forgot to put the water into the cups, we will see ants floating on top of the milk in the dish. Frequently, my mom would curse since ants would have creeped in when the water dried up; she had to take out the floating ants and use the milk.

In the house, we drew water from a well using pulleys, rope, and a bucket. We used that water for both drinking and bathing. We used to drink water drawn from the wells assuming that it was drinkable. Little did we know that it might have been the reason for many of the diseases in our household.

During summer months, the water in the well would recede and we had to toil to get a bucket of water. In the monsoon months, the water would be near the top and we could easily draw the water. There were some years when monsoon failed leading to scarcity of water. Then, the well-diggers were in full demand, whose job was to deepen the wells further and find new sources of water.

The toilets were outhouses, which had cement platforms on all three sides about a foot from the floor. Typically, they were about 10 feet away at the back of the house. They didn’t have roofs but had a wooden door. Family members squatted on the platform and used a mug full of water to clean themselves. The waste stayed exposed to nature for a day or two until the restroom cleaner, typically someone from a lower caste, came with a basket to collect the waste and wash the outhouse, though they were never truly clean. The sun would dry the waste and it was difficult to clean it given that the cleaner only used a bucket or two of water. Given the stink, we would hurriedly perform our ablutions and come out from there.

When we traveled, roadside toilets were hard to find, and my mom had to hide behind bushes to urinate. Men urinated openly in India anywhere they wished. Feces from children and adults were left in the open, drawing mosquitoes and flies who pecked at them and spreading diseases among the people. It was a disgusting sight; we had to be careful in walking so that we did not accidently step on one.

We typically took a bath next to the well. We stripped to our undergarments and then drew water from the well and poured it on ourselves. Depending on the season and the depth at which the water was at the well, our baths might be very short. We used very thin towels to dry ourselves since the sun would do an excellent job of drying us quickly. Given the lack of water, very few people in the town knew swimming.

During the summer months, it would be so hot (possibly in the 100 degrees F) range, that we had to take a bath twice a day. The water level in the wells would be at a low point and we had to exert to pull the water out. As a young boy, I did not mind getting drenched in the rain as it was easier than drawing water from the well. My parents used to fuss about it, but it was a lot of fun for us youngsters.

When ladies or girls took baths near the well, they tied their pavadai (an undergarment like a skirt) to cover their breasts and took baths from the wells.  Boys and men generally did not go to the back of the house when the ladies were taking a bath.

The clothes were washed next to the well. There was a washing stone that was kept nearby. This was just a large block of stone with a small slope so that we could squeeze and clean the clothes. We would draw a bucket of water, drop our clothes in the bucket, put some soap, squeeze, and clean the clothes using the stone, and then rinse them in the bucket of water. After that, we would hang the clothes on a clothesline that was a constant presence in our backyard. The clothes would dry in a couple of hours given the intensity of the sun. We had trouble cleaning our clothes only during the monsoon months when we had to dry them inside the house on clotheslines.

When I was about twelve, I visited our relatives in Chennai, I was fascinated to see the indoor plumbing. The the toilets were enclosed rooms where water came out of a pipe. These were Indian-style toilets where there was cement structure, and the toilet was integrated into the ground. We had to squat down on the toilet and then use water to flush the waste away inside the hole. The waste was collected in a tank that was at the front of the house. Sewage trucks would come once a month and pumps to remove the waste away from these tanks.

There were bathrooms where water would come out of taps and buckets would be placed under them. The buckets would have mugs that would hang on the side. People would have to strip to my undergarments and then use the mug to pour water on oneself. Typically, one stops a bath after using a bucket or two of water. There were no showerheads in these bathrooms.

Chennai is situated on the shores of the Bay of Bengal, a large body of water. In the evenings, I used to walk from my relative’s house to the Marina beach (about three miles away) and sit there for a period gazing at the unlimited expanse of water before my eyes. I wasn’t’ able to believe such a large expanse of water could be adjoining a large city. It was fun watching the waves and I used to wade into the water in my shorts. People wore modest clothes and you may see ladies standing in knee deep water with their saris pulled up.

The Bay of Bengal was ferocious, and it was not possible to wade much further than a few feet. But the beach was long and well kept. There would be many vendors that would sell their products and the crowd was intense. The noise from the vendors hawking the products would compete with the sound from the waves; the smell of deep fried pakodas and bondas would  mix with the smell of fish; ships would be anchored a few miles away from the beach leading me to imagine the life of the sailors. I would walk barefoot on the sand enjoying the feeling of sand getting into my toes.


I joined my undergraduate college, Regional Engineering College, Trichy, when I was fifteen years old. Trichy was a large town that was served by the rivers Cauvery and Kollidam. The Kollidam river splits from the main branch of Cauvery River at the island of Srirangam and flows eastward into the Bay of Bengal. Even though the bridge to cross the river to get to Srirangam from Trichy would be long, the riverbed was mostly dry, and we could see sand everywhere. Only during monsoon season, the river will be flowing fully.  People would dig the sand to get to the water. The municipality pumped water out of the river and supplied water to households in the city.

My college was located about ten miles away from the city in a rural area. It was a large campus. When I joined, it was three years old, and had an administrative building, a few departmental buildings, and a few hostels (dorms) to accommodate the students. The mess (cafeteria) for food was a separate structure. The staff and faculty members lived in residential units that were constructed inside the campus.

There was a large water tank where water from the underground (borewells) was pumped into and supplied the water to everybody on the campus. We had indoor plumbing and water was available in plenty. There was no filtration plant, and we drank water from the taps. There was no facility for obtaining hot water in the bathrooms. Since the temperature was mild even during winters, this did not pose any serious problems for us.

Some of my friends from North India who were used to getting hot water used to buy and hang a portable water coil to the side of the bucket and heat the water by plugging it in into a wall outlet. Even though this was a quick means to obtain hot water, frequently, we would get electric shocks if we touched the water or the coil without unplugging it.

I saw large bodies of water when I traveled to Kolkata to pursue my MBA from the Indian Institute of Management during 1971. This was the first time I had traveled out of my state to another state that was about 1,000 miles away. When I got on the train that would take me to Kolkata in two days, I bought a mud pot and filled it with water from the train station at Chennai. This kept the water cool during the hard and dusty two-day journey by train. The compartments were not air conditioned and the windows were kept open to facilitate air flow. We would feel the hot air coursing through the compartment during the daytime; it would cool down during the nighttime when we slept on the berths that were allotted to us. The water from the mud pot would condense and create a puddle on the floor of the compartment. Most people did not mind it since it cooled their feet in the hot weather.

Water was available in plenty at the dorms at my Institute. Unfortunately, the pipes had rusted, and we used to get red colored water spewing out of the showerheads. The concept of filtering water to drink was not common knowledge at that time. Therefore, frequently, we used to get stomach upsets from drinking the polluted water.

I saw the Hooghly River frequently since I crossed it either using a bridge or a boat from 1973 to 1977. I lived in South Kolkata and worked in a factory at Howrah on the other side of the Hooghly River. I had to take a bus from South Kolkata to the Howrah train station and then a local bus to the factory. Given the large population, all these buses were crowded, and one had to stand all the way. In the evenings, I took a bus from the factory to the riverfront, took a ferry, crossed the river, and took another bus from the Kolkata side to my home. Due to the humid and hot weather, most of the passengers would be smelling of sweat in the overcrowded buses.

I enrolled in a swim club in the Dhakuria lake, near where I lived in South Kolkata. It was a crowded pool and the instructor discouraged me from swimming since he felt I could not swim. That ended my swimming lessons in India.

Many parts of South Kolkata were below sea level and would get flooded during rainy seasons. The water would accumulate up to one’s knee level; I had to take my shoes in hand, roll up the pants, and cross this to get to my home. At other times, I used to hire hand rickshaws (small carts pulled by humans) who took me to the doorsteps. The rickshwallah (the person who pulled the cart) wore a dhoti folded up, ran bare feet, and were willing to cross the flooded streets for a few Rupees (local currency).

The Executive Director of the municipality visited our institute and talked to us about the difficulties in pumping water out of low-lying zones to the river. He also mentioned about the issues that arise when drinking water and sewage combine creating difficulties for the residents.

Hooghly river was a large body of water and the Howrah bridge to cross it was famous for its length and architecture. Ships used to sail under the bridge, and I used to wonder at this technological marvel. The water was used for all sort of purposes; drinking, cleaning, factories, etc., and was very polluted. When I walked near a ghat (and Kolkata had many of them where people could access the river using a series of steps), I saw people bathing in the river, cleaning their clothes, priests performing rituals, ladies putting flower garlands to worship the river, people fishing, and children loitering around the steps. The steps were not clean, and I had to be careful not to slip and fall into the river. The river itself was quite deep as Kolkata was a natural harbor. The rotting fish and floating flowers would combine to create a unique smell.

Lakshmi, my fiancé, was born and brought up in Kolkata. She used to have severe stomach pains due to drinking untreated water during her youth. But she did not realize the problem until much later in life. We married in March 1977, and I prepared for my travel to the USA in August  to attend the University of Pennsylvania to obtain a Ph.D.

Studies and Career in the USA

Life at Philadelphia during the first five years was difficult since we lived on a student stipend and had no ability to bring any of the funds in India to the USA due to Indian government regulations. Our difficulties did not seem arduous due to the friendliness exhibited by my host family, relationships formed with other Indian friends, amazing mentorship by my advisor McDonough, and love from our family.

The Delaware and Schuylkill rivers encircled the city, and the fact that they never went dry fascinated me. This contrasted with many rivers in South India that were dry and became full only during monsoon season. We used to go on walks on the shores of the Delaware river and used to cross Schuylkill River to get into the downtown area.

Our old studio apartment had hot and cold water and the heating system was run using radiators that circulated hot water. The sewage system was connected to the city’s network. When we had an opportunity to travel to Manhattan, New York, I wondered at the ingenuity that led to constructing tunnels (such as Holland and Lincoln tunnels) under the rivers to access the island city.

The University of Pennsylvania had excellent gyms and they had two pools. I learned swimming in those pools by myself. Later, I took swimming classes in local pools when we lived in the suburbs of Philadelphia.

We moved to Matawan and Ocean Township in New Jersey from 1985 to 1989 when I worked for AT&T Bell Laboratories and Lakshmi worked for a private school. Lakshmi’s school was right on the boardwalk of the Atlantic Ocean. There were many rivers and lakes in the state, and it led to dense forests and green landscapes. There were many beaches near us, and we used to go for walks on the boardwalks occasionally. The Island Beach state park was about 30 minutes from our home, and we visited it during the summer months.

My friends from Philadelphia would visit us and we would end up going to this state park. I had to drive through many towns in New Jersey to access this beach and then cross a bridge across the bay to reach the island. As I drove through the towns, I saw houses that were built on the backwaters. Boats were docked on these narrow waterways, and I saw people navigate their boats through the rivers into the Atlantic Ocean.

The water would remain cold most of the year and we would waddle in and get out quickly to avoid the cold. Most of the people would be sunbathing and few would get into the water. It would be very hot for a few weeks and we all would rush to the beach. I have some amazing photos of our children waddling on the beach holding onto our and our friend’s hands. My love for water grew out of these activities.

We also visited the Sandy Hook beach that was north of us. Unfortunately, the water was not that clean in that beach. Once, we stopped in a beach in that area and saw rotten fish and animals washed ashore due to the pollution and environmental damage from the heavily populated North New Jersey and New York city. As we drove near Staten Island, the stink from the accumulated garbage dumps in that area would assail us and we had to close the windows of the cars. It was alleviated by the beautiful scenery that greeted me as we went through the tall Verrazano- Narrows bridge and saw the vast expanse of water on both sides.

We moved to Auburn, Alabama, during 1989 to start my academic job at Auburn University.  During meetings with some of the senior faculty members, they mentioned that they had properties at Lake Martin, a lake about 30 miles away. They talked about the 750 miles of shoreline and the beauty of the land.

That piqued my curiosity and I eagerly accepted when one of them invited me to their lake home. I appreciated the serenity of that lake and the blue waters. 

My two children and we explored that area further and camped at the Wind Creek State Park situated on this lake one summer and enjoyed the views. The campsites provided water and electricity. I had bought a tent, a dining tent, and sleeping bags for my family. It took some effort, but we were able to pitch the tent for all of us. The bathrooms and toilets were in a common area near the campsite. We enjoyed our stay there and Lakshmi cooked meals on a propane stove top. We played in the water, went for strolls in the trails, and befriended people who were nearby. After a few days’ stay, we packed our tents and returned home.

We felt comfortable with the people who lived near Lake Martin and started to look for properties to buy on the lakefront. Eventually, we bought a 3 bedroom, 2 bath cabin that needed repairs. The neighbors were retired people who were living full-time on the water. My son, Shiv, and I rented pontoon boats and jet skis from a nearby marina and explored the lake. We had a physical map of the lake and had no cell phones with GPS functionality. We had to navigate the different inlets, remember where we were, figure out how to come back if we were lost, and identify where our cabin was in the lake. There were many occasions when we would think we were approaching our house to find out that we were on the wrong inlet and had to retrace our way back to the main channel.

It provided a great bonding time for our family. My brothers and their families from the Northeast visited us occasionally and we took them around the lake. Many rich people who lived in Birmingham, AL, had estates at the lake and we used to gawk at them from the water. There were a few houses which were built on islands and that aroused our curiosity as to how those people lived there.

This was an artificial lake, in fact a reservoir, when Southern Company built a dam to produce electricity during the early 1900s. The level of the lake dropped by about 10 feet during winters and the lagoon where our cabin was had no water access during those months. Some of my colleagues had their homes in the deeper parts of the lake and we used to enjoy our visits with them.

Auburn University had an excellent swim team and had an Olympic size pool. I further refined my swimming in these pools and received training from outstanding coaches. Our children also learned swimming in these pools during the summer breaks.

Exploring Lakes in Georgia

During 2003, Lakshmi changed her to job to work in LaGrange, Georgia, adjoining the State of Alabama. We bought a house there so that she would be able to commute to her work and I can continue to work at Auburn, a 45-minute drive.

I wanted to learn more about operating boats and noticed that there was an organization called Coast Guard Auxiliary that offered training and camaraderie. I joined a local unit that operated out of West Point Lake, Georgia, and worked with experienced boaters. When I attended the first meeting, the other members were receptive and encouraged me to stay in the organization, even though I was the only brown person amidst the whites. Being a small group, it was easier for me to fit in and be accepted by others.

Being an auxiliarist meant that the Coast Guard might ask us to serve in case of emergencies in Coast Guard cutters; they also had the authority to deploy the boats belonging to the members for Coast Guard activities if need be. The Coast Guard was generally deployed in the coastal regions and there were no units other than local law enforcement officers responsible for keeping the lakes safe and navigable. The auxiliarists played an important role in helping the law enforcement and the Coast Guard in protecting the lakes and waterways in the country.

The flotilla commander invited me to join in a patrol in West Point Lake. I found that four of them had already launched the 26-foot Sea Ray Sun Dancer boat in the water. Gingerly, I walked on the deck and got into the boat. We spent about four hours in the water going from the dam to the Highland Marina. I understood the basics of the red and green buoys (“red, right, returning”) that mark the waterway. That lake with 525 miles of shoreline was managed by the US Corps of Engineers, and I did not see any houses next to the waterway. On enquiry, I found that it was to protect the houses from getting flooded and to preserve the natural beauty of the lake. We helped the park rangers by assisting any stranded boaters and teaching boating safety classes. I enjoyed the companionship of the members and joined them in many other patrols of the lake and taught boating safety classes.

In due course of time, after mastering the basics of boating, I qualified as a crew. That meant that I could assist the boat’s coxswain (a sailor who has charge of a boat and its crew and who usually steers) during patrols.

Steering a boat was relatively easy since it was like driving a car and there was a lot more leeway available in water compared to road when navigating the boat. The difficulty was in docking the boat; there was no brake on the boat, and one must gently ease the boat to the dock and angle it so that the crew could tie the boat to the cleats on the dock. We went on patrol for several nights to check whether the lights on the buoys were working or not and report it to the Corps. The Coast Guard reimbursed the coxswain for using his/her boat for official patrols and we had to learn to use the complex computer systems to request patrol orders and report completion of the patrols. 

The flotilla conducted regular training on teamwork, navigation concepts, and reading maps (charts). We were also trained in how to perform search patterns and conduct rescue missions.

I became enthusiastic about buying a boat and requested Lakshmi to accompany me to the 2005 Birmingham Boat Show. We saw a beautiful yellow pontoon boat and bought it on the spot. I did not have a truck or a trailer and requested the dealer to deliver the boat to my lake cabin. He obliged me and sent a person to deliver the boat and train me in the basics of driving that boat. Wow, now we had a large 22-foot boat docked in our cabin with a trailer sitting in our yard.

It took several months for me to operate and use the pontoon boat effectively. In the meanwhile, winter approached and the water level in the lake receded. I was able to get a local marina to put my boat on the trailer, service it, and leave it at my cabin. I needed to learn how to tow the boat and therefore, I bought a Toyota Tacoma, a mid-size pickup truck.

I had to latch the trailer to the truck and drive in empty parking lots and learn the backing maneuver. I did not have a rearview camera in the truck and had to figure out how to back up the trailer in a straight line down a boat ramp. This is more of an art than science and my colleagues at the flotilla taught me some of the finer points in backing the trailer. The major issue is that one must rotate the steering wheel in the opposite direction of the backing maneuver; the angle of rotation determines how the trailer moves.

I went to the marinas to launch the boat at times where there were not many other boats so that I could take my time to do so. Even then, it was difficult to figure out exactly how much distance one must go in the water before you release the boat. Even now I admire those truck drivers who back up their vehicles up to loading ramps without breaking a sweat.  

As I gathered confidence and experience in handling the boat, I trained to become a coxswain in my flotilla. A major task for this qualification was to perform stern tow and side tow. A stern tow meant that you tie the other boat to your stern using a line and tow it. The crew must listen to the appropriate instructions and ensure that the line does not get entangled in the propeller. A side tow required both the boats to be tied together on the side using four different lines. There was a sequence as to how to tie these lines and any error made it difficult to tow the other boat. We had to train together many times to master these techniques. When two boats are of uneven heights, this becomes a tricky maneuver. It is also possible to damage the side of the boats during the tow; one had to be careful to deploy the bumpers so that the damage is minimized.  

Having mastered these techniques, I applied to be a coxswain. An experienced member of the auxiliary tested me, and I passed the requirements and was qualified as a coxswain. That provided me an opportunity to use my boat for patrols.

We were now living in LaGrange, GA, and having a boat at Lake Martin, about 70 miles away in a cabin, did not make much sense. Therefore, we sold our Lake Martin home and brought the boat back to LaGrange. Our homeowner’s association objected to us parking the boat in our driveway as it went against the covenants. I parked it at a local campsite and started looking for alternatives. 

Lakshmi had a colleague living in Lake Harding, Alabama, about 30 miles away from LaGrange. We visited this area and found that this lake was managed by Georgia Power Company and most of the homes were leased from the power company for 15 years extendable to 30 years. After a six-month search, we bought a 4,200 sq ft house on the lakefront and obtained the lease from Georgia Power in 2007. It had a boat house, and I was able to dock the boat there. The Lake Martin cabin was no longer needed, and we sold it in 2008.

We decided to remodel our master bathroom on the second floor since the current one was small. We chose a closet and requested a contractor to create a bathroom there. He inspected the house and told us that the house was on a downward sloping hill and the current bathroom was at the highest point. Therefore, sewage easily flowed into the septic tank. If we wanted to move the bathroom to the larger closet further away from the front, sewage must move upstream and would need a pump. We agreed to the idea, and he put in a sewage pump next to the closet. Unfortunately, the pump leaked and failed often leading to water leaks and damage to the ceiling downstairs.  The stink was unbearable whenever it broke. The water would leak through the floor and the drywall in the room below would collapse. We had to repair the pumping unit and ceiling multiple times.

After repeated repairs, we got frustrated and complained to the plumber. He said the only option is to move the pump outside the house, bury it, and run pipes to it so that the sewage would flow into the septic tank. We agreed and after an expensive repair and three days of work, the bathroom was usable. I learned a valuable lesson; it is difficult to fight nature and pump water upstream. Any failure of the pump leads to flooding.

This is a common problem in many cities around the world who are located at or below sea level. Any tornado, hurricane, or heavy rain floods the streets and causes considerable damage to property. Although pumps are deployed, they frequently don’t cope with torrential rains leading to severe flooding of homes and businesses.

As a coxswain, I used my boat to patrol both West Point Lake and Lake Harding along with my fellow auxiliarists. There were only a few boaters on these lakes most of the time; it got crowded during the holiday weekends, particularly during summer. I had an opportunity to witness and help with the July 4th fireworks on both lakes on multiple occasions. The major issue during these joyous weekends was boaters leaving their deck lights on during the nighttime thereby blinding the other boaters. We had to warn them to turn off these lights and use the navigation lights. In addition, the use of PFDs (personal flotation device, life preservers) was lax, and we had to ensure that those who rode the Jet Skis used them all the time.

I discovered that PFDs save lives; once you have it and are in the water, you stay afloat whatever happens. It is not possible to sink; therefore, there is no need to panic until help comes. Once, some of my relatives were visiting and we went on a ride around the lake in our pontoon boat. We had a jet ski and one of my brothers donned the PFD and tried to climb into the jet ski from the boat but fell in the water. He was scared and started shouting. Some of my relatives were ready to jump into the water to save him; I had to restrain them and tell them to desist.

We attached a rope to a float and threw it to him and asked him to hold it so that we could pull him into the boat. He was scared and started to put the rope around his neck. I had to tell him that nothing would happen to him as far as he had worn the PFD; he could not sink and therefore, there was no need for panic. In a few minutes, he calmed down, and we pulled him into the boat. Subsequently, he went on the jet ski and enjoyed that experience.

The best way to save a person stranded in water is to throw a float at them, ask them to hold it, and pull them in using the line. Jumping into the lake to save them might not be an appropriate strategy. People who assume they are drowning might use their adrenalin rush to pull any rescuer who jumps in down under the water; that is why it was recommended that we throw a float to them, they grab it, realize that they are not drowning, become normal, and then pull them into the boat.

Since these were artificial lakes that were created by releasing water and drowning the then existing buildings and roads, it was difficult to know where the water would be shallow or deep. It was important to have a good depth gauge and ensure that we stayed afloat and did not run aground.

Occasionally, we ran aground. Then, I had to lift the propeller up, push the boat away from the shallow portion using a paddle, and then get the boat away from that area. The boating community was friendly and respectful towards us even though we were one of the few minorities on the lake. I gained a lot of confidence in handling boats by belonging to the auxiliary.

During our patrols, my fellow auxiliarists and I noticed sewage from plants occasionally fed into lakes, leading to major pollution problems. This is a major problem in many states if it is not regulated by the local government. In 1990, I visited a steel plant to learn how to purify polluted water in Birmingham, Alabama. A lot of water was used to cool the hot metal during the forging process, and the polluted water had to be treated before being released into a river. I saw how the company worked valiantly to remove the pollutants and created a free-flowing, drinkable water stream using modern technologies. This showed me that although some of the water in the world is polluted, it is possible to clean and make it drinkable with the right resources.

My family spent several summers on beaches in Florida and in the Caribbean. I really enjoyed snorkeling. This required us to get in a boat, drive to a place where there are lots of coral reefs, then wear the snorkeling gear, jump into the water, float above the coral reefs, gawk at the variety of fish, sharks, turtles, tortoise, and other sea animals below us. It was an amazing moment where you see that there are so many creations in the world about which we pay scant attention.

I was in Hawaii one time and decided to try surfing. I went to a beach where they were offering surfing lessons. The young person gave me a board and taught me how to ride the waves. After thirty-minutes of trying and falling into the water, I asked him, “was there any simpler way?” He suggested lying on the board flat and surfing; I tried it and at least was able to surf a few times before I gave up.

In a beach, it is a lot of fun to get into the water and let the waves sweep past us. The undulating motion of the waves reminds me of how our lives have ebbs and valleys constantly. As we are relishing success, a defeat in another matter comes sweeping in and takes us to the bottom. Before we completely despair, a new positive wave lifts us up and we enjoy that moment.

Senior Years

The Near-Death Experience (NDE) during January 2019 shook my confidence and intention to continue with the rigorous boating activities. I retired from the auxiliary and sold our Lake Harding house. A person known to the realtor offered to purchase our boat and I sold it to them. My boating activities came to an end, but not my interest in the importance of water for everybody.  Even though there is no large body of water next to Atlanta, I continue to enjoy water by participating in water aerobics at the local gym. We get into the pool and perform exercises, such as rigorous walking and moving various parts of the body. A trained instructor helps us perform these activities.

Having realized the importance of water, I have stopped drinking coffee, tea, or alcoholic drinks, since they are either stimulants or depressants. I keep a water bottle on my desk, on my bedroom nightstand, and in my car. When I travel, I ensure that I carry a water bottle with me. These steps ensure that I am hydrated constantly.

Water from the tap is drinkable in most towns and cities in the US. When I was at the hospital, once I was past the critical stage, the nurses insisted that I keep drinking water and urinate. In the hospital, they measured how much I urinated to ensure that there were no problems with my kidneys. Thankfully, drinkable water was available in plenty.

Water is an essential element of human living, and the nurses got me fresh water each time I needed it. Similarly, when I used the toilet, the wastewater and solids were sent to a central facility in the city where it was processed, and the water was purified and then mixed with regular water. Countless plumbers and engineers maintain the water’s purification and wastewater plants and ensure that the citizens in the city got potable water to drink and the waste in homes was taken away. They perform a heroic task without any complaints or fuss.

Did humans struggle to get water from their home generations back? I was astonished to see that using gravity, Romans built aqueducts in Spain, Italy, and other countries where they ruled (about 500 years, from 312 B.C.E. to C.E. 226), to bring water to homes using gravity[i]. I had seen aqua duct systems in palaces in Rajasthan, India, so that the royalty had access to water. I assumed that with all the modern technologies that are available to us, clean water is accessible to all.

Availability of Potable Water for Everybody

When I performed research, I found that potable water is not that widely available. About 71 percent of the earth’s surface is covered in water, but its availability for drinking is limited to where we live and the technologies that are adopted by the community to purify and bring it to people’s homes.

According to an 2022 UN report[ii], one in three people does not have access to safe drinking water, two out of five people do not have a basic hand-washing facility with soap and water, and more than 673 million people still practice open defecation. Women and girls are responsible for water collection in 80 percent of households without access to water on the premises. More than 80 percent of wastewater resulting from human activities is discharged into rivers or the sea without any pollution removal. Floods and other water-related disasters account for 70 percent of all deaths related to natural disasters.

What can we do to change some of these conditions? I identified several organizations that are leading efforts to change conditions and I have joined and/or donated to them to help alleviate some of the misery that one third of the world population suffers from.

Water for People[iii] has provided 4.7 million people with reliable water supply around the world. They focus on things like protecting water supplies, training mechanics, and establishing supply chains for parts in addition to drilling wells and installing pumps. It means they think about long-term projects like advocating for national water policies and creating local water and sanitation utilities. It accepts donations and has the ability for us to volunteer on fund raising and providing technical assistance.

Charity: Water[iv] works with local organizations to build sustainable, community-owned water projects around the world. It accepts donations to fund the projects.

World Water Relief[v] installs water filtration systems, local training on maintaining the system, ongoing maintenance, and hygiene education. This education is critical to help prevent the spread of waterborne disease.  An estimated 1/3 of school-aged children in the developing world are infested with intestinal worms. Not only do these illnesses rob children of school attendance and achievement, but they are also underlying causes of malnutrition and stunting.

UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 6 calls to ensure universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene for all by 2030. “Access to clean water changes everything; it is a stepping-stone to development. When people gain access to clean water, they are better able to practice good hygiene and sanitation. Children enjoy good health and are more likely to attend school. Lives of women and children improve. Parents put aside their worries about water-related diseases and lack of access to clean water. Instead, they can water crops and livestock and diversify their incomes. Communities develop and thrive.”

Water.org is a global nonprofit organization working to bring water and sanitation to the world[vi].  They help people get access to safe water and sanitation through affordable financing, such as small loans. They give our everything every day to empower people in need with these life-changing resources – giving women hope, children health and families a bright future. They work with local agencies/ municipalities to implement solutions.

Water gets into our system, water gets out of our system, and the water we drink must be processed so that it is safe for consumption. In any part of the world, there is a need to obtain clean drinkable water and efficient processing of waste. The water we drink comes from water our ancestors drank, their waste was processed by earth, and water was regenerated to keep us alive. Similarly, the water we drink and the water in our waste will subsequently be used by our succeeding generation. It is critical to recirculate the wastewater so that it is free of toxins for those who need it next.

I am saddened to note that the lack of potable water which I experienced as a young adult is common to 33% of the world population today. I hope and pray that in the next few decades people around the world will have their need for potable water and sewage treatment met adequately.

[i] https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/roman-aqueducts/

[ii] UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, “Ensure Availability and Sustainable Management of Water and Sanitation for All,” https://sdgs.un.org/goals/goal6

[iii] https://www.waterforpeople.org/the-progress/

[iv] https://www.charitywater.org/our-work

[v] https://www.worldwaterrelief.org/why-wash-2/

[vi] https://water.org/about-us/?_gl=1*pnttp*_up*MQ..&gclid=CjwKCAjw4ZWkBhA4EiwAVJXwqQxOpEAm9VLhmSlk7Rw1SGP4Hdw9VWuBvYavulEBBjc_mNt_dMmiRxoCPmIQAvD_BwE


Chetan S Sankar holds a doctorate in the information systems area and was a professor and researcher in this field for thirty-five years. He is a member of the Atlanta Writer’s Conference and coordinates the memoir critique group. Attending the Creative Writing Program at Emory University and receiving critiques from the memoir group have helped him write this article. He lives in Avondale Estates, Georgia with his wife. He spends his time playing with and learning from his four grandchildren. His website is at www.chetansankar.com.

The Weight of Black Hair

by Sydney Hollins-Holloway

The hair of an African American woman is a symbol of individuality. Long ago before my ancestors were transported to America, hair meant history, and tradition. On the caramel-colored sand of the motherland, royal blood was undeniable, because of the blatant display of beaded braids that embellished the scalp. This wasn’t just a phenomenon or a resurgence of a lost trend. This was everywhere across the continent.

Hair was literally the backbone of an unfiltered society. In western regions, like Yoruba, hair was used as a direct form of communication to the Gods. Tight knitted cornrows with intricate patterns banded by thread and braided up to stand tall on the raised heads of men and women alike were admired. Even in times of peril and hardship, my people reclaimed their history.

Despite having their heads forcibly shaved, they used their newly grown hair as guides for freedom and sustenance. When the risk of starvation was high outside of captivity, they hid rice in their tamed coils for when they escaped. This strong motivation to remain one with a culture that was constantly threatened throughout history was something that I envied.

My present day maintains a completely different reality. Every time I have changed my hair, insecurity looms over me like an oppressive shadow. Without fail, there was always this nagging thought in the back of my mind about if I should make a separation from my culture. I tried this when I indulged in the tempting fad of getting a perm. I was young enough to know that I wanted one for all the wrong reasons. It primarily had to do with the media that I watched. When I was the tender, impressionable age of 8, all I consumed were reruns of Disney Channel and Nickelodeon. iCarly, That’s So Raven, Casey Undercover, Zoey 101, and Degrassi were the main television shows I watched.

At the time that these shows were broadcasted to these channels, there were very few Black women who had leading roles. Those who did never owned their natural coils or rocked braids with that confident air that I thought was universal for everyone who looked like me. Instead, they appeared to me as clones standing next to their white counterparts with straightened manes or loosened curls pulled back in a ponytail.

I primarily saw this when watching episodes of That’s So Raven. No one seemed to question Raven’s ethnic differences when she had her hair slicked back and pressed to perfection. In fact, the woman of color who was the lead character was often surrounded by people. It was as if friendships came easier when a crucial part of her appearance changed. This is what I saw, and this is what pushed me to take the plunge into the deep end.

I can remember the feeling of the perm distinctively. Cold, wet, and heavy are the only words that I can use to describe the initial application. Nikki, my unorthodox hairstylist who had an affinity for smoking cigarettes and selling God-knows-what while she was doing my hair, used to coat the pure white substance on my tresses liberally. I never questioned her actions. Partly because she was the only person who knew how to braid my hair, and mainly because the only asset I had at the time was in her hands.

Metaphorically and literally.

“Tell me when it starts to burn, okay?” This is what she said before walking away to go take a long drag of her newly lit cigarette.

“Okay.” I said as my small eyes followed her retreating form.

While I sat in the low seat that was given to me, occasionally, I glanced around at the cramped, dark apartment or stared down at my feet hoping that time would go by fast so that I could see the finished product. Little did my younger self know, the process would be agonizingly slow. The tingling and gradual heat from my head was the only thing that made it interesting.

Yet, it soon became unbearable after the tingling subsided. It was replaced with consistent heat and a burning sensation that wreaked havoc on every covered portion of my hair. I stayed mute and tried to act like I was a big girl who could take the pain; even though I was trembling from the rhythmic throbbing of my scalp.

It wasn’t until Nikki came back from her long break in the back of her apartment that I told her my scalp was burning. She ushered me to the sink, and quickly doused my hair in cold water. The shaking went away as soon as the horrid solution that seared my scalp went down the drain in a cloudy stream. After putting my hair through the ringer, Nikki finished off the process with a quick neutralizing shampoo and conditioner followed by what I like to call a “child friendly” hairstyle.

A set of flat twists at the front section of my hair followed by a crown in the middle with the rest of my hair curled in soft ringlets. When my mom came to pick me up and I finally got a chance to see what it looked like for myself, I was very underwhelmed. It didn’t look like the sleek and flat hairstyles on the TV shows. It looked bulky and felt hard as a rock because of how much product was used on my compromised locks.

“Why can’t I wear it all out?” I asked my mom.

“Because then you’ll look too grown.” She answered, though there was a touch of bitterness in her voice.

Later, I asked my mother about it again.  She reiterated what she had already said. She preferred this look on me because she claimed it kept me young and not like those other little girls who were trying to be grown. I didn’t know what she meant until I got much older. On our way home, I told her that the perm stung.

“You’re the one who wanted to be beautiful,” She reminded me. “Beauty is pain.”

Well, if beauty was pain, I didn’t want any part of it. Pain was the furthest thought from my mind after that initial lapse in judgment. My parents made it abundantly clear that my obsession with perms wouldn’t become a problem. Luckily, it never became one.

What became a problem was the residual insecurities that I couldn’t put to rest. Like my ability to let the intruding questions live rent free in my head. Even though there are days that go by where nothing happens, I will always remember the words of overt racism. They started off with compliments and then slowly picked me apart.

“Sydney, your hair looks really nice!”

“How long did that take?”

“Is that your real hair?”

“Can I touch it?”

The longer I allowed for these intruding questions to linger, the more people felt entitled to know about my hair. To know the secrets that I held so dear. The sudden intrusion of a sacred part of my life made my heart sink. It wasn’t just because of the insensitive questions. It was because of the baggage that would come with my reaction. These questions were a part of a much bigger test. A test known to push boundaries.

To see how far I would go until I completely snapped. I didn’t like these types of tests because they taught me the first lesson of my lifetime. The world is truly black and white. Even if we are no longer physically segregated, we are still set apart by our differences. Discrimination like the ones I faced every single day were still inescapable. I never saw myself in the same light as I did before.


Sydney Hollins-Holloway is an emerging writer born and raised in New Jersey. She received a bachelor’s degree in creative writing from Fairleigh Dickinson University and plans on pursuing a full-time career in the publishing industry. Her writing interests include fiction, creative nonfiction, and spoken word poetry. When she isn’t dabbling in writing, she models a diverse range of fashion for local brands and photographers.

I Am Autism

by Jonathan Kruyer

Weird. Strange. Quiet. Disruptive. Sensitive. Emotionless. Gifted. Special. Under-developed. Special needs. An old soul. Childish. Star seeds. Aspergers. So many ways to avoid calling someone autistic. Parents would rather say that their child is “sensitive” or “quiet” than admit that their child is autistic. Teachers would rather say that their student is “gifted” or “special needs” than admit that their student is autistic. Children and adults alike would rather say that their peer is “weird” or “strange” than admit that their peer is autistic. 

Growing up, my parents always said they didn’t “believe in labels.” If I struggled I just had to “suck it up” (their other favorite thing to say) and work harder. The possibility that I might be autistic was never even discussed. My parents refused to imagine there could be anything “wrong” with me, and to them, admitting I was autistic would be exactly that. What they failed to realize is that avoiding a diagnosis did nothing to keep me from getting labeled. It just meant I had many different labels. In school, if a class aligned with my special interests I was labeled “gifted,” and if a class did not align with my special interests I was labeled “distracted” and “not living up to my potential.” These labels were used by educators to put the responsibility for my development on me, rather than taking the effort to try to figure out my needs and accommodate them. Among other kids, I was labeled “weird,” “nerdy,” and even in some cases “freak.” These labels were used to exclude and divide, limiting my socialization to others who had been similarly rejected. Following my parents’ advice to simply work harder and “suck it up” led to me first experiencing a condition known as autistic burnout in senior year of high school, and I was then labeled “lazy” because I simply did not have the energy to work anymore. My parents refusing to admit I was autistic didn’t help me at all. It just meant the labels I received tore me down and offered no answers on how I could climb back up.

A recent study has shown that people who aren’t autistic (the scientific term for that is allistic) unconsciously identify an autistic individual within the first minute of meeting them and “are less willing to interact with those with autism based on thin slice judgments.” The study found that allistics consistently determined that they disliked autistics after only seconds of interaction and that they were routinely uneasy and even repulsed while interacting with autistics. Allistics usually cannot properly define what it is they are recognizing and disliking, but it happens nonetheless. They see someone sitting in a strange way or twiddling their fingers in the air, they notice as the person they are speaking with cannot meet their eyes or stares into their eyes a little too directly, they hear someone speak in a monotone voice or get too loud and animated as they speak about something they are interested in, and they unconsciously mark that individual as “different.” As wrong. In other words, autistic people give allistic people the “uncanny valley” effect.

The “uncanny valley” is a translation of Japanese bukimi no tani, coined by the roboticist Masahiro Mori, who created a graph that plotted the emotional response of a human being to a robot against the increase in the perceived realism of a robot; the graph showed a significant dip at the point where the robot’s resemblance to a human is perceived to be almost exact. Oxford defines the uncanny valley as “the phenomenon whereby a computer-generated figure or humanoid robot bearing a near-identical resemblance to a human being arouses a sense of unease or revulsion in the person viewing it.” It is the feeling that something is off, that what you are looking at isn’t quite right. This is the same reaction allistics have to autistics. To the allistic mind, autistics are in the same category as robots and computer-generated figures, able to mimic humanity, but unable to fully replicate what it means to be human. On a subconscious level, allistics instinctively view autistics as not human.

If you are allistic, you may be reading this right now thinking “I don’t think that way. I don’t view autistic people as not human,” and I would bet you genuinely believe that. And on a conscious level, you are probably right. But if you were to really pay attention to your first gut reaction when you encounter “weird” or “unsettling” people, you would see it. You likely don’t even realize they are autistic when you have this reaction. You just know they are strange, they are different. And, in your first gut reaction, you instinctively know they are wrong

I see this reaction often. I can’t meet someone’s eyes for more than a moment, I sit strangely with my legs in a tangle at level with my head, I talk too animatedly about one of my special interests, I twiddle my fingers in the air to give them something to do while I try to listen to someone else speak, I flap my hands in excitement or anxiety, and I see it. The “what a freak” look. The look that shows this individual has categorized me as weird or wrong or crazy. I have stopped caring about this, mostly. But that doesn’t mean I don’t notice. And I know I don’t get the worst of it by far. There are many whose autistic traits are more visible than mine who can’t have a single interaction without that “freak” label slapped onto them.But of course you would never think that way about autistic people. You wouldn’t be that mean.

And that’s what it inevitably wraps back to. Autism is an official diagnosis of a mental disability, and no one likes to think the reason they dislike someone is because they are bigoted and biased against someone with a disability. So they think that person cannot possibly be autistic. They are weird, or strange, or creepy, but not autistic. The weird person is the problem, not you. The problem could not possibly be you. Because you are the normal one. They are the one being weird.

Nearly everyone who has heard the word “autistic” has a predetermined idea in their head of what “autistic” looks like. Maybe it’s your aunt’s autistic nonverbal son, who needs help to eat. Maybe it’s a kid who goes to your church who will recite the entire script of their favorite movies to whoever will listen. Maybe it’s an “autistic savant” who cannot deal with social situations without breaking down but perfected their skill at mathematics or piano playing or something else when they were eight. Maybe it’s a character from a tv show you’ve watched, like Sheldon Cooper from the Big Bang Theory. Whatever your mental image, it is inevitable that what you imagine to be autism is, at best, only a small sliver of the autistic experience, seen from outside.

Autism is not just one thing. All autistics have certain similar traits as a result of our unique brain structure that connect us, but how that looks on the outside varies widely, with results across a wide spectrum. When you hear “spectrum,” you might imagine a line, with one end being “less autistic” and another end being “more autistic.” This is incorrect. It is true that some people “seem” more autistic than others, but this seeming is a result of outside perspective. The autism spectrum is not a line. It is more like a color wheel. How autism looks and is expressed will vary as much from one autistic to another as red does from blue or yellow, but they are all equally autistic. There is no such thing as “more” or “less” autistic. The nonverbal autistic is not more autistic than a hyper verbal autistic, and an autistic who is able to mask well enough to pass themselves off as allistic when they need to is not less autistic than an autistic who is incapable of masking. While they might not necessarily fit what you have been taught to picture as autistic, all of these are equally autistic. 

So far too often, the person you think is weird and unsettling is still somehow too “normal” to be autistic, because they don’t act or look like how you have decided autism acts or looks like. When an autistic person has a meltdown, they are just being dramatic or childish and need to get over it. When an autistic person is experiencing shutdown, they are creepy and emotionless. When an autistic person begins infodumping, they are full of themselves and just like to hear the sound of their own voice, or they are getting too agitated about something that doesn’t matter and they need to calm down. When they deal with executive dysfunction, they are lazy or not applying themselves. When they can’t meet your eyes, they are shifty or lying. When they fail to understand social cues and social norms, they are being difficult and not respecting authority. Everyone else understands how these things work. Everyone else gets it. Everyone else has “common sense.” So why don’t they? They must be the problem. And despite the fact that everything I listed is literally diagnostic criteria for autism, the problem could not possibly be that they are autistic. Because that would mean you are the asshole. And that can’t possibly be the case.

It’s not your fault, not really. If you’re allistic, then the world we live in was designed for your neurotype. Everyone is expected to play by the unspoken rules of a game you understand intrinsically. The fact that the rules never get explained aren’t your fault. It is no surprise that when looking at someone who thinks so differently from you, at someone who obviously does not fit in this world in the way you do, that you would instinctively see them as something that doesn’t belong. Because we don’t. But that’s because people whose brains work like yours designed this world in a way that ensures we can never truly belong. 

Now this is not to say you have no issues or that the world was perfectly made so that you would never struggle with it. That would be ridiculous. Everyone has struggles. But if you are allistic, then this society is structured for you, because it was structured and continues to be run by allistic people. You are in the majority, so it makes sense for everything to be built around the way your brain works. The fact that millions of autistic people are being continuously torn apart by the constant requirement to live up to allistic standards doesn’t factor into it, because it’s a problem you never see.

Can you imagine living in a world where you are constantly punished just for thinking? Where the way your brain works is a crime, and you have to pretend to think in a completely different way if you want to continue existing in society? Where accidentally revealing the way you think, from a misplaced word or making the wrong facial expression, results in ostracization and incrimination? That is only a fraction of the struggle of being autistic in an allistic world. This may sound like an exaggeration, but I can promise it is not.

Imagine with me for a moment that you have moved to a foreign country. You speak the language well enough, but you learned the language almost entirely from reading textbooks. You know the literal meaning of the words the people around you say, but you understand none of the slang, none of the euphemisms, none of the colloquialisms, none of the little nuances of culture and tradition. You don’t know any of the social rules of this society, and every time you try to ask and learn these rules you are met with scorn and disbelief. “You should already know this,” they say, and refuse to answer your questions. This happens enough times that you begin to wonder if they even understand the rules themselves, or if they are just making it all up as they go along and using your ignorance of this fact to mess with you. Sometimes, when you think you have figured out one of the rules of this strange culture, it seems to suddenly change, and once again everyone looks down on you. “That only applies in specific situations,” they tell you. You ask what situations it applies to and which it doesn’t, and they laugh and reply “you just have to be able to tell.” But you can’t. You can’t figure out which situations the rule applies to and which they don’t. People start to assume that you are doing this on purpose, that you are deliberately breaking the rules of their society just to be rude. After all, you should have figured it out by now. 

What I have just described is a mere fraction of my daily experience. I live with this reality every day of my life. And it is only the beginning.

Have you ever heard of ABA therapy? Applied Behavior Analysis or ABA therapy, is a “therapy” method used on autistic children, and is defined by Autism Speaks (a hate group that likes to pretend it is trying to “help” autistics) as “a therapy based on the science of learning and behavior,” that “applies our understanding of how behavior works to real situations. The goal is to increase behaviors that are helpful and decrease behaviors that are harmful or affect learning.” The intent of ABA therapy is to “Increase language and communication skills,” “Improve attention, focus, social skills, memory, and academics,” and “Decrease problem behaviors.” Sounds great, right? Sure, to an allistic person, especially the allistic parent of an autistic child. But can you guess what the “problem behaviors” and “behaviors that are harmful” are? They are autistic behaviors. They are behaviors like infodumping, in which an autistic shares large amounts of information about one of their special interests. They are behaviors like stimming, which is necessary for proper emotional regulation in autistics. They are behaviors that, while they might occasionally make allistics uncomfortable, do no real harm, and are in fact integral for autistics to live happy, healthy lives. 

While groups like Autism Speaks use flowery language to hide it, ABA therapy’s purpose is to coerce and force autistic children to stop acting autistic and to act more allistic. To hide who they are or be punished. This is one of the most commonly used “therapy” methods for autistic children, and is the cause of immense trauma for countless autistic people as they grow up, as they are unable to properly express themselves, trapped by the abusive training stamped into them from childhood. 

Autism Speaks is the biggest and most public “advocacy group” for autistics in the world. But if you ask nearly any actual autistic person what they think of Autism Speaks, they will not have a single kind word to say about it. Why? Because Autism Speaks is not an advocacy group. It is a hate group. Autism Speaks supports ABA therapy, but that is only the beginning. Autism Speaks once put out an ad titled “I am Autism,” in which autism is characterized as an insidious, amoral force that infiltrates families and seeks to destroy them, autistic children are presented as burdens on their parents that cause only problems, and parents are encouraged to “fight” and “beat” autism. Autism Speaks’s original mission statement stated: “We are dedicated to funding global biomedical research into the causes, prevention, treatments and a possible cure for autism.” A cure. Autism is not a disease. There can be no cure, and I would not want a cure even if there was one.

I love being autistic. I don’t love how I am treated because of it or how much I suffer trying to work in a world that does not accommodate my needs, but I love being autistic nonetheless. It is because of my autism that I am who I am. It is because I am autistic that I get completely lost in fantastical worlds and learn everything there is to know about them, from history to geography to technology to all the important characters and their own personal histories and character quirks. It is because I am autistic that when I get truly excited I physically cannot contain it and all that emotion needs to escape in the form of stimming. It is because I am autistic that I can remember countless little details about the things I love. It is because I am autistic that my brain is constantly flooded with new ideas for stories and worlds and characters for me to build and explore and get to know. Everything I love about myself is because I am autistic. But people like Autism Speaks see all this and only see a problem that needs to be solved. A puzzle piece that needs to be forced to fit into their perfect puzzle. A broken thing to be fixed.

These are the sort of things autistic people are forced to deal with their entire lives. We are expected to hide who we are, to pretend we think like everyone else, to play the allistic guessing game and ignore our needs in order to make everyone else feel comfortable. And all that work doesn’t even succeed at convincing people that we are normal. No matter how much an autistic person works to hide that they are autistic, no matter how well they “mask,” allistics still have that same gut reaction when they meet us. We still trigger the uncanny valley effect, the internal warning in your mind that tells you that something is off about us, that we aren’t quite “human.” Because for some reason, “human” only includes those who think and act like you. 

To be honest with you, even now I have barely scratched the surface of the autistic struggle. I have barely even mentioned autistic burnout, how the constant pressure to mask and live up to allistic standards of personhood inevitably results in anxiety, depression, and an inability to perform even basic tasks that were once simple or easy. I have not talked about how the average life expectancy for autistic people is 36, due in large part (among other factors) to high rates of suicide. I have not talked about how autistic people are regularly used as tools by hate groups like transphobes who claim autistic children are being “tricked” into transitioning, because these hate groups think we can’t speak for ourselves and are thus easy tools for garnering sympathy. I have not talked about how the now-defunct diagnosis of aspergers has its origins in Nazi race science as part of how to determine which autistic people should be allowed to live. I have not talked about how autism is regularly used as an excuse for eugenics, as people consistently speak about how they want a genocide of autistic people through use of a “cure” or finding a way to identify and then abort all autistic fetuses. I have not talked about how certain countries don’t allow autistic immigrants because they believe they will be too much of a burden  on the nation. I have not talked about how anti-vaxxers treat having an autistic child as worse than a dead one, because they refuse to give their children life saving vaccines due to their fear that the vaccine will give their child autism. I have not talked about how autistic behaviors and traits are regularly used in media to characterize “inhuman” characters like aliens and robots. I have barely touched upon the myriad of issues that face autistic people on a daily basis and the countless ways we are dehumanized in all aspects of life.

There is so much I could talk about, so many injustices I could address, so many casual hate crimes committed against us without a second thought, so many ways the society we live in was built in a way that actively works to tear down autistic people. And maybe one day I will talk about it all, though I think I would need a lot more than just an essay to explain it all. It would require a full book, at the very least. So for now, I will leave you with something smaller. 

I am autistic. Maybe I match your mental image of what autism is. Maybe I don’t. But I am far from the only autistic person you have interacted with in some way. Early in 2023, the CDC reported that 1 in every 36 children is diagnosed with autism. And that is without even considering how often autism goes undiagnosed, due to sexism, racism, and myriad other factors. This means that at the very minimum, there are considerably more autistic people in the world than there are redheads (as about 1-2% of the world’s population has red hair). Think about how many redheads you have encountered. You have encountered many more autistic people than you have redheads. Or, to use an example with less geographical variation, simply think about how many people in general you have met. Over the course of your life, you have likely interacted with thousands of people, which means you have likely interacted with at least dozens of autistic people, if not hundreds.

So the next time you get that gut reaction, the next time you look at someone acting in a way that doesn’t make sense to you, the next time you look at someone and think “they’re weird” or something similar, the next time someone freaks out about something you think is trivial, the next time someone has difficulty doing a task you think is simple or easy, the next time someone fails to understand something you think should be obvious, the next time someone can’t meet your eyes or acts disrespectfully or does any number of things that seem wrong to you, remember what I have said. And think about it. And maybe, just maybe, try to be a little kinder.


Jonathan Kruyer is a Canadian-American writer and author with a Bachelor of English from Brigham Young University. While his true joy is writing fantasy, this essay was born from his experiences living as an autistic person in an allistic world and the struggles that come from having a brain that works differently from those of everyone around you. You may reach him at jonathankruyer@gmail.com or check out his narrative ttrpg podcast, The Genesys Archives. 

No Funeral: The True Story of Richard Petrowski

by Steve Schecter

Aside from influence, Richard left almost nothing behind. He never married, he had no family; his few belongings were abandoned, stolen, or confiscated. I have no photos of Richard, or phone numbers of surviving friends–I don’t even know their last names. Consequently, his story must be told solely from memory. And every word of it is true.

I met Richard Petrowski when I was nineteen, shortly after moving to Austin, Texas, and knew him until I was twenty-six, when he passed. Though I learned a great deal from Richard, what little I know about his life outside of our friendship can be summarized quickly: Richard was born in Abilene, Texas, in 1962. He played drums in a rock ‘n’ roll band during high school and graduated with the class of ’81. He then worked in the West Texas oil fields for nearly a decade before serving a year in prison for a drug charge. During his oil field days and before prison, he owned a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and a Corvette Stingray. After prison, he moved to Austin where he successfully kicked a heroin habit, then methadone, spent nine years on parole living in a one room apartment and eventually kicked that too. Then Richard again owned a Corvette Stingray, and a travel trailer that he lived in while saving for a plot of land in the Texas Hill Country, where he planned to build a house. But in 2003, after living with Hepatitis C for many years, Richard died from cirrhosis of the liver. He was forty-one years old.

That’s Richard Petrowski’s life on paper. He was exactly the type of person who was underestimated, overlooked, and taken advantage of, especially by people of low character. Because most people missed it–who he really was, an image of moral integrity. Richard once said to me, “Steve, you’re young and you may make a million dollars in your life,” he always waxed positive. “But I’m not gonna make a million dollars in my life. The only thing I have is my word. Without my word I ain’t worth shit.”  It reminded me of the Bob Dylan lyric “if you live outside the law you must be honest,” but sounded even more poetic somehow; one of many things Richard said to me that still rings true.

The Deville

In 1996 Austin, Texas, offered the perfect backdrop for unambitious dreams. After arriving with little more than a guitar and a backpack I took to open mics and temp jobs, like a then typical Austinite, and moved into The Deville apartments at 2020 S. Congress Ave, apartment 1313. (No kidding, it’s an address I’ll never forget.) Congress Avenue runs from the State Capital downtown for ten blocks, before crossing the bridge famous for its bat population and becoming South Congress, a main artery that continues dead south all the way out of town. My one room efficiency twenty blocks south of the bridge was four hundred dollars a month including utilities, plus an extra thirty dollars a month from May through September when they turned on the central A/C. The Deville was originally a motel, you could tell by looking at it; a two-story building connected by cast-iron walkways to a three-story building behind it, with a parking lot and swimming pool in the middle. Half the apartments faced inwards, towards the pool, the other half faced out, with narrow hallways running down the middle of each building. My apartment was on the third floor facing in, providing a clear view of the Seven-Eleven across the street and the swimming pool below. I never swam in the pool, I didn’t even own any swim trunks, but that was where I first saw Richard Petrowski. He was often down there lounging.

Richard was over six feet tall with a deep tan, a big belly, and a faded tattoo of a Harley-Davidson eagle across his chest. He had brown hair kept short in the front and long in the back–halfway down his back, the ultimate mullet–with a thin mustache and thick rimmed glasses over silver-gray eyes. Richard always wore shorts and flip-flops, and hardly ever wore a shirt. During the almost eight years I knew him, I only saw him in a shirt a handful of times and long pants even less. There were a lot of interesting characters at The Deville, but Richard stood out. He was a fixture.   

The Deville had a stairwell running up the side of the building that briefly dropped you into the hallway of each floor before entering the next flight of stairs, and every time I passed the second floor it reeked of weed–the thick stench of Texas dirt weed emanating from finger-sized doobies­­. It was obviously coming from the first apartment, the only door you passed before reentering the stairwell, and was so constant that I even contemplated knocking and inviting myself in–a thought only my nineteen-year-old self would entertain. Then one day I walked by just as the longhaired shirtless man from the pool was standing in the doorway seeing someone out. I gave him a quick wave and he returned the gesture, and this went on for a few weeks, a nod in the hallway, the simple acknowledgement between neighbors.

Eventually I mustered up the courage to introduce myself followed by the pertinent inquiry, about weed, imposing on him right in the hallway of The Deville. My appearance back then was as noticeable as Richard’s, though probably more naïve. (I was skinny as a rail with a greasy pompadour and always wore torn jeans, black boots, and white t-shirts with the sleeves rolled up, or white undershirts often referred to as a ‘wife-beaters,’ which I’m campaigning to rebrand as ‘wife-lovers’ since their common name is gross and inaccurate, but I’ll use it here for descriptive clarity.) So I assume Richard didn’t take me for a cop but he was cautious nonetheless, and I later learned his response that day was somewhat uncharacteristic. Only slightly taken aback, he half-smiled and said he might be able to find a joint. He didn’t invite me to his apartment, where I would later spend hours on end, but instead asked which apartment I was in and said he’d drop by shortly. Within a few minutes Richard was knocking at my door with a small baggy and some rolling papers.

My apartment had little furnishings. No television, two folding chairs facing a stereo in the middle of the room, a guitar against the wall, and miscellaneous music equipment strewn about. Next to the stereo was a small stack of records with a recently purchased Buddy Holly at the front, a double LP with a pink gatefold cover called Legend – from the Original Master Tapes. And it was that record that first endeared me to Richard Petrowski.

“You like Buddy Holly?” he asked, surprised and intrigued.

“Yeah man, Buddy Holly’s a genius! If he’d lived there’s no telling, he could have been more influential than the Beatles!” It may sound like bullshit, but it’s a reply I’d still give today, and I could tell by Richard’s expression it was the right answer. That was the first time I saw Richard’s broad, completely unselfconscious smile that engulfed the lower half of his face and showed him to be missing most of his front teeth.

“He’s from Lubbock, you know?” I did. “I’m from Abilene! Up there in the panhandle,” he added with pride. Richard spoke with that lilting West Texas accent. It isn’t a drawl, it’s more eloquent, like a perpetual politeness with a heightened awareness of vowels. “Do you mind if we listen to that?”

Of course not, so we passed a joint while listening to Buddy Holly. When we weren’t talking Richard sang along quietly, not in a disruptive way, more out of pure pleasure as if it was impossible not to. He knew every song, which didn’t seem to fit his appearance, but I was just beginning to understand Texas. And Richard was a Texan through and through.

“Man, I seen you around, but I thought all this was just a look,” he mused, gesturing to my hair. “I didn’t think you were into the music, or that anybody your age listened to Buddy Holly!”

“Yeah, I love rockabilly, ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll,” another reply that I’d still give today, “old country, blues … I grew up more with punk-rock stuff, you know, but then followed it back,” it prattles on and concludes with something like, “I mean, I dig all kinds of music.”

“Rockabilly. That’s what you are, isn’t it?” He said it kind of rhetorically, as if reintroducing himself to a forgotten term. “Yeah, you look like a rockabilly, don’t ya?”

Richard thumbed through my records approvingly, then asked me a little bit about my guitar playing, and if I’d ever heard of Pat Travers. I had not. This was only the first time Richard told me about the inimitable Pat Travers, hands down his favorite musician, stating with no uncertainty I should check him out immediately, especially since I was a guitar player. In later conversations I learned that Pat Travers hailed from Canada, oddly enough, but played in Austin once a year at The Steamboat downtown on 6th Street, and that every year Richard went to see him–the only time Richard ever went down to 6th Street.

After listening to the entire Buddy Holly double album, Richard left me what was left in his small baggie along with some rolling papers and his phone number.

“Give me a call sometime. I can usually find a bag for a friend.” In truth Richard sold pot, it was his sole source of income, but like everything else he played it close to the vest.

It wasn’t long before I made the call, and from then on we met in his apartment. The Deville apartments were all exactly alike, though Richard’s was the mirror image of mine being on the opposite side of the hall; a narrow kitchen on one side of the door, living room on the other, leading out to a motel style balcony with a small bedroom nook and bathroom around the corner. Richard’s apartment was cozy and well-furnished compared to mine; he had clearly lived there for some time. The living room was filled with a small couch and coffee table surrounded by bookshelves, houseplants, and neatly stacked rows of books and magazines; the balcony was overrun with potted and hanging plants. Richard usually dwelled in the bedroom nook, reclining on the bed watching a small TV at the foot of it. I would cop a squat on the floor across from him, leaning against the wall next to the bathroom door. Our relationship grew organically from conversations that began on the floor of his apartment and continued for years after we both left The Deville.

Spacecrafts & Chicken-fried Steaks

We talked at length about everything from the serious to the abstract, with no inhibitions or awkward silences–as unselfconscious as Richard’s smile. Our visits lasted indefinitely, sometimes going on so long that we reconvened for breakfast up the street at the Richard Jones Barbeque, where a chicken-fried steak and eggs with coffee was under six bucks.

One of Richard’s favorites topics was UFOs and extraterrestrials. Richard believed aliens had a long history on Earth and was versed in alleged encounters from the famous Roswell incident to passages in the bible, and everything in between. His favorite show was The X-Files. I hadn’t seen The X-Files–no television–but Richard swore that some of the episodes were based on real occurrences and suspected that part of the show’s intent was to familiarize people with events that would one day be made public, in essence softening the blow. I have always been game for speculation, the wilder the better, which may be why Richard enjoyed my company–I never dismissed his opinions or told him he was crazy. Some of his most compelling ideas involved the moon landing, what really did or didn’t happen, and why we hadn’t yet returned–at least not to the public’s knowledge. In Richard’s defense, none of his theories have been disproven in the twenty years since he passed, and some have been supported.

“Rockets?!” Richard would rant. “Shit, you think rockets are any way to travel through space. You think launching an object straight up, fightin’ the Earth’s gravity, with a fossil fuel engine, is any way to reach other planets? Hell no!” He would answer his own questions. “For one, you burn up too much energy just leaving the Earth’s atmosphere. Hell, rockets for space travel, that’s just a farce!”

A quarter century later, in July of 2021, Virgin Galactic launched a craft resembling more of an airplane than a rocket. The spaceplane was launched off the back of a carrier plane, or mothership, after being piggybacked up to 50,000 ft–not straight up fighting the Earth’s gravity–then conducted a sub-orbital space flight before gliding safely back to Earth on its own momentum. Witnessing the event, I couldn’t help being reminded of Richard’s rocket rant. I wish he had been here to see it and wish I could have shared his reaction.

But it wasn’t all spacecrafts and conspiracy theories. After I got to know him, Richard told me about his former addiction to heroin, and how through treatment he had since become hooked on methadone, which was even harder to quit but at least a habit he could afford. “Hell, the only reason I go to the methadone clinic is heroin cost me two or three-hundred bucks a week just to maintain. Believe it, that shit’ll take everything you got.” This all caught me by surprise. Richard was nothing like the junkies I’d known, or the recovering addicts who feel the need to immediately and constantly share their story. His was purely a cautionary tale told by a humble narrator.

Richard never talked about his time in prison, only that it happened and what put him there. He was pulled over somewhere in West Texas holding enough pot to be charged with a felony and sentenced to ten years in prison; his Corvette was impounded. After serving a year in the notorious Huntsville State Penitentiary his sentence was commuted to parole, which he was still serving. Richard was lucky (his words) to have only been in Huntsville a year and said any longer may as well be a life sentence; the effects are too devasting and permanent. But life on parole made everything touch and go. Any violation could mean serving the remainder of his sentence in prison, and anything he owned could be confiscated. Consequently, Richard kept his savings and valuables in a safety deposit box downtown. No bank account, nothing on paper. Doing just enough business to get by with those who he completely trusted. Richard’s line of work hadn’t changed but his operation had adapted.

When I had my own legal troubles and faced a mere thirty days in the Travis County Jail, Richard provided support and perspective. “Hell, thirty days is nothing. Keep your head down and you’ll be fine.” He knew the game, “you play you pay.” Later, when facing two years of probation, he again offered vital counsel. “They want you to fuck up, so they can have you on paper the rest of your life. So don’t make it easy for ‘em.” ‘On paper’ was Richard’s term for being in the system, on parole or probation.

Having experienced it all, Richard also brought a necessary dismissiveness and humor to legal predicaments. Like when I was subjected to regular drug testing as a clause of probation–the humiliating act of peeing in a cup under the watchful eye of a government employee. “Man, that guy ain’t nothin’ but a peter-gazer!” Richard laughed. “Can you imagine havin’ that job? I tell ya, he’s gotta be one miserable son of a bitch!” But in the end, his advice was always sound, straightforward, and simple, “Play it smart, get it behind you, and keep ‘em out of your life forever. Then get back to playing your music.”

Richard had become a fan of my band, an outfit that gigged regularly in Austin through the late nineties. He first saw us playing just up the street from The Deville, at an early show he could walk to. Labeled Texas Rockabilly, mainly due to our location and appearance, the band was greasy and sleezy, and right up Richard’s alley. He nodded approvingly flashing his wide grin throughout our set. After that, Richard came to see us any time we played in South Austin at a reasonable hour. He wouldn’t go downtown, where most of our gigs were, but would always brag about us when introducing me to his friends.

“This is Steve, he plays in a rockabilly band!” Richard seemed to love saying that forgotten term as much as he loved plugging us. “You gotta go check ‘em out! When are you guys playing next, Steve?”

Richard’s apartment could be a scene, due to a combination of his generosity and the friends he kept. There was often someone coming or going or staying too long. One of the mainstays was a pleasant character named Mikey who Richard had known since his oil field days. (Pronounced ole-field, with Richard’s accent.) Mikey was a small guy with a grey beard and ponytail who always wore a headband and spoke with a thick east-Texas accent–a nasally drawl emphasized by hard stops, almost a barking sound. He had that former meth-head-hippie look about him, but Mikey was alright, and one of Richard’s only friends who stayed around throughout. Besides me. Plus a fellow named Jim who had been Richard and Mikey’s “Oil field daddy,” a term I haven’t heard before or since but gathered it was an endearment for the boss of the rig, their de facto caretaker. Jim was there for Richard when he was released from prison, a standup guy by Richard’s account– which makes it so­–and Mikey was too. That’s what it took to maintain Richard’s friendship.

He was never one for a handout, but always one for a helping hand. When Richard’s friend Britt who he’d known in Huntsville was released from prison, he found his way to Austin where he was living on the street and occasionally staying at the nearby Salvation Army. (The Salvy, as Richard and his friends called it, another term I haven’t heard before or since.) After seeing Britt on the street one day, Richard did everything he could to help him get back on his feet and for two months Britt’s bedroll took up a corner of Richard’s efficiency apartment. Britt was a likeable guy who had paid too dearly for a victimless crime, his deep-set brown eyes revealed both a kind soul and a tremendous amount of pain. But Britt’s time in Huntsville was well over a year, and by Richard’s own admission possibly too long to endure. When he wasn’t floundering, he was spiraling. Sadly, Britt eventually wore out his welcome at Richard’s, couldn’t stay sober enough to stay at the Salvy, and ended up back on the street.

“He knows the damn rules! The Salvy won’t let you in if you’re fucked up. He shows up in the evening and they can tell just lookin’ at him,” Richard’s disappointment was palpable during our last conversation about Britt. “He stopped by the other night and had the balls to ask me for money. Gave me those sad eyes and his whole bit about just needin’ twenty-five bucks to rent a room and get cleaned up. So, hell, I gave it to him.” He could tell that part surprised me, and Richard’s venting then shifted to the tone he used when imparting wisdom. “Whenever somebody like that asks me to borrow money, long as it’s a small amount, I just give it to ‘em. I know they won’t pay me back, and that gives me a perfectly good reason to never see ‘em again. Hell, it’s a bargain. Twenty-five bucks to get him out of my life for good.” Even though Richard cared deeply for him, Britt had proven to not be a standup guy.

Life After Paper

It never occurred to me that Richard had been biding his time, deliberately stagnant, until I pulled up to The Deville one day and saw a pristine, white Corvette parked in the space just below his balcony.

“Did you see my new ride?” he asked with a grin that simultaneously showed off his new teeth–dentures, as white as the Corvette. “It’s an ’82 Stingray, just like the one I lost. Come on, let’s go for a ride.” As the V-8 rumbled through the neighborhood Richard pointed out all the minor differences between this Vette and his old one, while still managing to wave and flash a smile at everyone we passed. Richard’s spirits were soaring, it was more than just the new car: He was finally off parole. Gone were his fears of losing everything to the whims of bureaucracy, a new chapter was beginning beyond the confines of paper. A cause for celebration commemorated by the Corvette and new teeth, both paid for with cash from his safety deposit box.

Shortly after, Richard bought a travel trailer and left The Deville, his home for the last nine years, renting a nearby spot off Radam Lane where a handful of trailer spaces lined a gravel alley behind a row of duplexes. The trailer was ten-by-twenty-feet, even smaller than his apartment, divided into two parts; through the front door a tiny kitchenette opened into a room with a dining nook against one wall and small couch against the other, the living room, then up two steps a narrow doorway led to the equally sized bedroom and bathroom. Though it seemed barely enough room for a guy Richard’s size to turn around in, it was his castle which he proudly owned. Richard immediately started eyeing land in the hill country outside of Austin where he planned to move his trailer and eventually build a house. A dream that never came to fruition.

With the new neighborhood came new neighbors, which were more of a step over than a step up from The Deville. The only one I remember was a character named Vinnie from the trailer next door, a short-haired, clean cut looking guy who always wore a baseball hat. Richard often referred to him as “that fuckin’ crackhead,” but was neighborly towards him nonetheless, and later, Vinnie would be there for Richard as a good neighbor should be. Like Britt, Vinnie had the eyes of a decent person, buried underneath the trials of addiction.

Furnishing his new digs, Richard bought a desktop computer with a printer that permanently filled the dining nook. Internet access brought Richard’s UFO research to new heights; on numerous visits I was met with unparalleled excitement accompanied by printouts of recent discoveries. The internet also put Richard in touch with his former high school rock ‘n’ roll band and got him invited to his twenty-year class reunion taking place in Abilene the following spring.

One of my favorite memories of Richard comes from stopping by to find him seated behind a newly purchased vintage Pearl drum set taking up the entire front room of his trailer and completely blocking the path to the bedroom. Not only was he planning to attend his class reunion, but his old band had been booked as the entertainment. Determined not to be the rustiest of the group, he was practicing drums for the first time in twenty years. Richard was beaming. The neighbors were complaining. He was especially proud of the twenty-six-inch ride cymbal, explaining to me that a cymbal that large was both hard to come by and integral to his style. Richard had often talked about his days in a rock ‘n’ roll band, he couldn’t have been happier that they were getting back together, to play for his old peers no less.

Just when I thought Richard couldn’t surprise me any further, he introduced me to his live-in girlfriend, and even dabbled with a straight job.

The girlfriend was a petite blonde named Crystal who dressed neatly and always wore her hair in a tight ponytail, appearing to be nothing like the hardcore-white-trash girls that used to gravitate to Richard’s apartment. With Crystal in tow, Richard started frequenting the gambling boats in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Blackjack was one of his favorite pastimes, Richard was as close to a card counter as anyone I’ve ever known, and Crystal liked to ride along and play the slots. They were together for close to a year and during that time Crystal accompanied Richard to his class reunion where his old band was a hit and showing up in his Corvette with Crystal on his arm felt like nothing short of a coup–directly contradicting any small-town gossip about his time in prison with his larger-than-life presence. Then just as quick as she showed up, Crystal was gone.

“Trust me, I’m better off” Richard concluded, and we never spoke of her again.

Richard’s straight job was in a small office, coincidently right next door to a place that rented music equipment where I worked at the time. Even more coincidently, it was just a few blocks north of The Deville right on South Congress Avenue–that street representing the center of South Austin still playing a central role in both of our lives. I never figured out exactly what Richard did in the office next door, and admittedly the term ‘straight’ may be an overstatement, but for a few months he would poke his head through the backdoor of the rental shop brightening my day with small talk and the novelty of seeing him in a button up shirt and long pants.

Though neither the job nor relationship lasted, both were notable examples of Richard’s dynamic character and broad potential during the brief time when the world was his oyster.

Perhaps the most profound side of Richard Petrowski was that which I witnessed the least; the Richard Petrowski I read about in the newspaper, in an article about a long-running support group for recovering drug addicts. Pictured just below the headline encircled by the other members, Richard was the focus of the article with his characteristic wisdoms and candor quoted throughout. He talked about originally joining the group as a requisite of parole, and why he still attended even though he was no longer required to or involved in treatment. He talked about the importance of being there as a tactile example, and the support he felt fortunate to now be able provide others. He even touched on the role spirituality–what sounded like a loose form of Buddhism–had played in overcoming his addiction to heroin, and the ensuing battle with methadone. The article painted Richard as the natural leader and kind soul that he truly was.

No Funeral

Unfortunately, Richard’s uplift period didn’t last long. He had only been off parole for three years when he fell seriously ill. How long he was living with Hepatitis C, and for how long he knew about it, are among the things I’ll never know about Richard Petrowski. He contracted the virus through needle use, which means he carried it for at least a decade before it noticeably affected him. By the time he said anything it had developed into cirrhosis of the liver, his organs were shutting down. I didn’t know anything about Hepatitis C then, I associated cirrhosis with alcoholism and Richard didn’t even drink. Hep C has since become largely treatable, even affordably so, especially when it’s caught early. But at that time interferon was the only successful treatment, and whether it was too expensive or simply too late is another thing I will never know–my guess is the latter. Richard was given temporary relief through pain medications and the periodic draining of fluids. He needed a liver transplant, but his history of intravenous drug use made him ineligible for the donor list.

Richard went downhill quickly. The consistent sparkle in his grey eyes never returned, replaced by the fog of illness. He started retaining fluids to the point that trips to the doctor’s office or emergency room became weekly occurrences. That’s where Vinnie stepped up. No longer able to get in and out of it, much less sit for long drives, Richard had sold his Corvette putting the money towards his ongoing medical bills.

During his final months it became more and more difficult to visit him, but in his typical style Richard still tried to wax positive even when he was visibly suffering. My most recent band had split up and I had just begun performing and touring as a solo act–a project I’ve stuck with to this day–with jaunts taking me as far as the upper Midwest and eastern seaboard. Richard loved the open road but had never traveled beyond Texas and Louisiana. He always prodded me about my recent tours and mused about joining me. “Man, I’d love to go on the road like that. You gotta take me with you next time… Maybe next time you head over to New Orleans you can drop me off at the gamblin’ boats in Lake Charles and pick me up on your way back.” And I always told him I would. That we would do all of that, next time. Even though we both knew it wasn’t feasible.

Knowing what was ahead, Richard composed a will and confided in me, Mikey, and a few others about a “chunk of change” he was leaving behind to be divvied up between his closest friends. More importantly, Richard insisted on leaving me with his vintage Pearl drum set. I didn’t play drums, and Richard knew this, but he wanted to see they were put to good use and said I was the one he trusted to do so. I was his musician friend. Nothing good ever came of the will, but he did leave me with his drum set, though earlier than originally planned. He called one afternoon sounding defeated, “Steve, you gotta come pick up these drums. I can’t play ‘em anymore. I just keep trippin’ over ‘em.” I should have known he was giving up, usually just looking at his drums was a source of pleasure. “Nah, they’re just in my way now. Besides, I’m leavin’ ‘em to you anyway.” I reluctantly went by that evening, and that was the last time I saw Richard.

He didn’t greet me at the door, just hollered to come in and propped himself up on the edge of his bed. He was no longer able to move around easily, and no longer went to the trouble of putting in his teeth. Richard’s smile from my earliest memories was the last one I saw. After I loaded up the drums we talked for a while, but he kept the conversation light, familiar. “Jon Bonham, Keith Moon. They were like the Gene Krupas of my generation.” Our final conversation, like our first, was about music. I promised I would take care of his drums, and even said that I’d bring them back once he was feeling better. I couldn’t accept what was happening. I still needed my friend to live.

Two days later I got the call from Vinnie at my work, Richard must have told him I worked at the music rental place on S. Congress. “Richard died last night,” his voice was breaking up over the phone. “I drove him up to the hospital, but they didn’t do anything for him. They just left him sittin’ there for hours, finally I brought him back. But when I checked on him this morning he was layin’ beside the bed, and I knew…”

I struggled to give Vinnie a reply and barely made it out the backdoor–the same door Richard used to poke his head through–before losing it completely. As I’ve learned since, even when you know what’s coming, death is impossible to be prepared for. That evening I spoke to Vinnie again, one last time. He told me how Richard had been draining his fluids at home by puncturing a hole in his naval with a safety pin, leaving his sheets and bed an awful mess. It still pains me to know that Richard’s final days were spent suffering and alone.

Richard Petrowski’s body was cremated. That responsibility fell to Jim, his oil field daddy. I have no knowledge of what happened to Richard’s remains. There was no funeral. No service of any kind. It was as if according to some unknown standard Richard’s life wasn’t worth formally commemorating. Mikey, Vinnie, and a few others gathered in a nearby park and said a few words the day after Richard died, but no one called me. I only heard about it when Mikey called out of the blue a couple weeks later.

I couldn’t have cared less about Richard’s “chunk of change” at that point, but Mikey, among those Richard promised would be included, wanted to fill me in on the bitter proceedings. Unfortunately, Richard’s will had turned out to be no more than a file on his computer. Nothing printed, nothing signed. Even worse, the file appeared to have been recently edited to include Vinnie’s name at the bottom, which Mikey and others suspected was done by Vinnie himself the morning he discovered Richard’s body. So maybe Richard was right about “that fuckin’ crackhead” after all. Or maybe after so many rides to the hospital Richard changed his tune about Vinnie and added his name hastily at the end. Either scenario is conceivable. By default, Jim was acting as executor of the estate, but by Mikey’s account wasn’t honoring Richard’s wishes. When I told Mikey I didn’t want to be involved, he informed me that I already was.

“Well, I told Jim, Steve already took the drums. So, why can’t I get my share? Ya know, what’s comin’ to me?” Mikey’s accent was more grating than usual with an animosity that blindsided me.

I told Mikey I only took the drums because Richard asked me to, but he was missing the point. To Mikey it was something of monetary value, but to me Richard’s drums were now something much greater–his prize possession left under my care with specific instructions.

I lugged Richard’s drums around with me for the next ten years, through several moves, always stored safely. Eventually they were given to worthy musicians I knew would put them to good use, including the ideal heir for his twenty-six-inch ride cymbal. I did exactly what Richard asked of me, what was promised. I still have his canvas stick bag with two pairs of drumsticks and his sweat-stained wristbands inside. It lives permanently in the corner of my music room. And I incorporated part of his kick pedal into a foot-percussion device that I still use for shows and touring. So in a way, Richard finally got to come with me on the road, to Louisiana, and everywhere else I’ve been.


Richard was fifteen years my senior, which means I am now unfathomably a few years older than he ever lived to be. I’ve since lost more friends than I care to count, perhaps due to running with musicians–a fragile group with a high mortality rate. When I started writing Richard’s story, I was in the process of losing another close friend to illness, who also happened to be a drummer. Again, I knew what was coming and again I found myself completely unprepared, clinging to hope, praying for a miracle. So maybe writing about Richard was a transference of sorts. But I don’t think that’s it. Richard has always stayed with me, he regularly visits my dreams, always smiling, sometimes giving advice. At times I become aware it’s a dream and can enjoy getting to spend a little more time with him. Other times the dreams are mistaken for reality, and I awaken with a renewed sorrow following the realization that he’s gone. Dreams are strange that way–dead friends are strange too.

I sometimes wonder if the reason Richard’s death affected me so profoundly, and his presence stayed with me for so long, is because it was the first time I lost a close friend. But I don’t think that’s it either, at least not all of it. Richard was truly an exceptional person, an unassuming role model who I’m still learning from. Richard led by example, proving honesty is a virtue regardless of circumstance, and that with enough will, any hardship can be overcome. And his death revealed how little we actually control, and how unjust our final outcome might be. Richard endured so much, undeterred, only to face greater suffering and ultimately be struck down by mistakes he seemingly already paid for. And through it all, he somehow stayed positive. Richard could have been bitter; he could have been cynical or remained stagnant. But he never succumbed to those burdens, instead he accepted his mistakes and kept his sights fixed on the future. Richard demonstrated strength and perseverance right up until he no longer could.

I believe it’s for all these reasons that Richard Petrowski has stayed with me, and for all these reasons that I continue to honor his person and his memory. I honor him by remaining unselfconscious and independent-minded through this ever-changing world. I honor him by not wearing a shirt outside, at least from May through September. I honor him by finally watching the X-Files–and wanting to believe. I honor him by ignoring authority wherever possible. I honor him by steering clear of trouble. I honor him by trying like hell to wax positive, something I struggle with. And I honor him by focusing on my music.

Most of all, I honor him by never forgetting the man he was, or the lessons he taught me. I regularly pass by all the old haunts. The Deville has been remodeled as condos and rebranded as ‘The 2020.’ The Richard Jones BBQ is now the site of a Wells Fargo. The trailer spaces in the alley off Radam are gone but the duplexes next door are still there, more dilapidated than ever, triumphantly defying their surroundings as if saying, ‘not everywhere can be gentrified,’ at least not yet. When I cruise through the old neighborhood and see the people living there now, walking dogs, and pushing strollers, I wonder if they have any idea just how different it was not so long ago. How seedy it was, and how easy our lives seemed then. Can they even imagine a typical day at The Deville apartments? Or that a character like Richard Petrowski once ruled the roost?

Though much has changed, anytime I want to revisit those days I can count on Buddy Holly, specifically Legend – From the Original Master Tapes, a double LP I picked up while living at The Deville. The pink gatefold cover takes me right back to that small apartment with the view of the seven-eleven across the street. And the music brings me right back to that first conversation with Richard Petrowski. Within a moment I can hear the lilt of Richard’s voice singing along quietly, then hear the cadence of his laughter, and feel the warmth of his smile. As missing friends has become a part of everyday life, so has enjoying their memory, and savoring their presence whenever I stumble upon it. Along with always wondering why their time was cut short… Yeah man, Buddy Holly’s a genius. He’s from Lubbock you know.


Steve Schecter is a musician, songwriter, and writer, living in Austin, TX. Born in the rural community of Friend, Oregon, Schecter began his musical career as a teenager in the Portland area, before moving to Austin in 1996. Performing under the name Ghostwriter since 2002, he has published over a hundred songs and released ten albums on his own independent label, End of the West Records. Steve Schecter’s first book, “No One at the Circus: The Story of Ghostwriter through Place and Song,” was published in 2022 by Gob Pile Press. For information on writing, releases, and upcoming shows, go to endofthewest.com.



The Box in The Closet

by Eric Lee

Everyone must learn this truth at some point.  I only wish, at seven, I hadn’t been so inquisitive, then maybe I could have enjoyed the magic a few years longer.

I was sitting on the living room floor watching TV.  It was a week before Christmas, and I could see our tree with the lights on it.  Everything sparkled and reflected all these different glittery colors; it was beautiful.  That’s when I heard Freddy and Bob in the kitchen talking with Mom and Dad about Santa.  Their voices were a little muffled, so I crawled closer toward the dining room table to hear better.

I could hear Mom say, “Keep your voices down.”  Then Freddy said, “But we know all about Santa.”  I leaned in closer underneath the dining room table not wanting to miss a word.  Somehow, I knew this must be important information, but I couldn’t let them know I was listening.  “We know that it’s you who buys the presents, keeps them hidden somewhere, and puts them out on Christmas Eve.  That’s what some kids told us at school.”

My father looked annoyed, “If you two don’t believe in Santa, well then I guess you both will be on his naughty list and won’t get anything for Christmas.”

That’s when Bob started in, “I didn’t hear anything, I only heard what Freddy said.” 

“Bob, you said you heard it too.” 

That’s when my mom spoke up. “Now just a minute, why don’t you both start from the beginning and tell us what you heard, and we can sort this out.”

I knew what I had to do.  I crawled out from under the dining room table and sat thinking for a moment in front of the TV.  My brothers were older than me, and sure they could punch me harder than I could punch them, but I’d proven in card games that I was smarter than them both.  As I sat all alone in the living room, I was looking right into my parents’ bedroom and could from where I sat, next to the TV, just a little ways away, see their closet door.  I needed to check it out. That’s what I would do.  I quickly crawled into their bedroom and opened the closet door.  There on the floor sat this giant box.  A box I’d not seen before.  I didn’t look inside; I was too afraid of being caught or maybe afraid of what I might find, I didn’t know at the time.  I stepped back, quickly closed the door, and went back out into the living room and stared blankly at the TV.  I thought about what Freddy said a few minutes earlier, and then wondered about that big box.  I kept what I’d seen a secret.  I didn’t tell Freddy or Bob.  I didn’t tell anyone.

A week after Christmas, one day when the house was quiet, I snuck back into my parents’ bedroom and opened their closet door.  What I saw was a big empty space; the box was gone.  In a way I was surprised, but then I wasn’t.  I was suddenly sad because I’d learned the truth, the secret which Freddy had talked about two weeks ago, that the magic about Santa wasn’t real.  I didn’t know what to do with what I’d learned.  There was this large emptiness inside me, and I felt like crying.  Why had I looked?  What made me do it?  I thought I wanted the truth, but then, sometimes the truth hurts.  That’s when I started to question what I’d seen.  I mean, I didn’t look IN the box, but I knew.  I just knew.

After I closed my parent’s closet door, I went back into the living room and sat on the couch, alone.  Knowing what I’d just learned hit me like a wave and I realized the impact was more than Santa alone.  It was Frosty, and Rudolph, all of it.  I sat there and looked at the Christmas tree and wondered why did we put all those ornaments on the tree?  Why are there so many other decorations all over the house when none of it was real?  Yet, I liked how shiny and bright they looked.  Even now that I knew the truth, I still liked all the decorations. 

Then I saw how my mom and dad acted together when they sat and looked at the tree all lit up.  I saw how they smiled at each other and held hands and it made me wonder if it was something else that was magical that I didn’t yet understand.  That maybe it wasn’t Santa alone but something bigger.

 Everything about the holidays made everyone in our family happy.  We would go up to Grandma’s farmhouse and all our aunts and uncles and cousins would be there, and it was just like at our summer picnics.  We all had fun together, laughing and playing games.  All my aunts made delicious pies to eat, and my dad and uncles would tell jokes, and stories and we’d all laugh.

I kept the secret I’d learned about Santa to myself.  I didn’t even tell Loretta, my favorite cousin.  I realized, why would I want to ruin the Christmas magic for her?  Or anyone?  Yet I knew that there was more to Christmas than just Santa.  I just hadn’t figured it out yet. 


Eric Lee, a scientist for 40 years, retired from the corporate world and turned to writing in 2021.  In addition to crafting poems and short stories, he’s also writing his memoir, An Intentional Journey, and is completing the last book in his trilogy, The Secrets Beneath Nantucket Sound.  Eric’s story, The Box in the Closet is his first publication in a literary magazine. He lives and writes between the woods of Andover, Massachusetts, and the mountains of Newry, Maine.

Too Late to Save the F-word

by Rita Stevens

            It was an overheard conversation.  Older Man A said to Older Man B: “He used the F-word. I just had to tell him I considered the word unacceptable.”

            Jack and I were seated in the hotel’s breakfast room, the two men at a table near us. The unacceptable word, we learned, had been uttered on the golf course the previous afternoon. The pro had put together a foursome of single players, one of whom was Older Man A. Unfortunately, another of the four turned out to be the eventual F-word offender. We lingered over warmish coffee as A and B continued to remark about the young man who had been “out of line,” as B diagnosed it. And it got worse: Older Man A had heard others use similar language later in the day.

            Wives A and B arrived from their rooms for breakfast. Older Man B spoke with his wife at once. “Young people drinking beer were outside around here last night using the F-word,” he told her. I saw her nod and look serious as she sat down.

            The four went on to other topics, but my mind lingered on the F-word.

            In an abstract way, I’ve long been a fan of the F-word, although probably never was it considered a polite term. (For what it’s worth, I’m also a fan of the despised word “ain’t,” but that’s another issue.) My appreciation of the F-word lies in its being an old Germanic verb with timeless features. The universally popular action it names gives it emotional weight and some erotic usefulness. As an interjection, in the way it was once used — rarely, and under extreme circumstances — it delivered as intended. It’s short, compared with the Latin derivatives “fornicate” and “copulate,” both wishy-washy intransitives, unlike the punchy F-word.

            “Just think of a synonym verb that takes a direct object,” I said to Jack on the drive home after breakfast. “There is none.”

            “Screw?” Jack suggested.

            “Well, yes, but that’s a late-comer euphemism with the wrong consonant sounds. When you take it out of the toolbox, it’s a third-rate word.”

Jack had to agree.

            We both remembered an F-word incident from many years ago involving a cousin on Jack’s side of the family. It came up under circumstances that all of us have experienced at one time or another – the “no good deed shall go unpunished” scenario.

            We had tried to intervene for the benefit of a worthy cause and were opposed by the cousin, whom I’ll call, “Clyde.” Because of Clyde, we had no success in our intervention, which eventually led to the kind of many-tentacled horror we had predicted. Before Jack and I finally gave up, Clyde sent one more letter. “Dear Jack,” it started. It proceeded mildly but soon elevated into cold sarcasm, then became slightly heated, and in its last sentence fired the F-word, followed by “you and your wife.”

            Jack and I remembered how shocked we were. But even at the time I considered it an especially good use of the F-word in its attack mode.

            As far back as 1951, J.D. Salinger’s fictional Holden Caulfield was driven to distraction by proliferation of the F-word in its knee-jerk presentation, written on walls. Holden was a sensitive soul, but very young. I’ve never been able to figure out if, at heart, he most objected to the triteness of the signs, or to their random belligerence, or if he had internalized a generational revulsion for the word. Salinger certainly didn’t intend him to come across as protective of it, which I am.

            I’m sorry, for example, that dramatists in recent decades have sprinkled the F-word around so liberally. Like the rubber belt on an old vacuum cleaner, it has been weakened by too many uses. Back in the day, any of the impolite four-letter Anglo-Saxon words uttered in a play would be met with either nervous giggles orstraight mouths and sour facial expressions. Casual reviews would often emphasize the play’s “bad language.” The F-word was the next-to-last of the bunch to be taken in stride by the cultivated crowd.

            Sometimes movie scripts deliberately throw in so many F-words that, after a while, the audience hardly notices — becomes, in fact, bored by them. The movie “Pulp Fiction” employs that brand of audience manipulation 265 times. The most, I thought. But no, only the most in moviesI personally have seen. “Goodfellas” reaches 300 and “The Wolf of Wallstreet” makes it to 569. Unacceptable, as Older Man A declared.

            Losing a golf ball or hooking into the rough may call for a tension-relieving snarl of some kind, but using the F-word seems to me like overkill. It has become a common substitute for the S-word. Or even for “Rats!” Or “Darn it all!”

            I’m doing what I can, but I fear it’s too late. I hate to see the F-word overused because that undermines its value. Unlike vacuum cleaner belts, it can’t be replaced.


Rita Stevens has worked as a teacher and as a writer and editor for a small newspaper. She lives in Portage, Michigan.

What The F*ck is Going On?

By Arlene Rosales

I don’t quite recall the last time I fully understood something that happened in my life. Two seconds ago, I was just entering high school and worrying about keeping my room clean, and now I am working five days a week, going to school, and trying to sleep more than 4 hours; and I am doing it all in a different country. For a long time, I begged for a pause. The world finally heard me —the novel Coronavirus hit the world in March of 2020. My life took a 180-degrees turn, just like everyone else’s. However, I was not affected by the shortage of toilet paper, Criminal Minds ending after 15 seasons, Zoom classes, trending workout videos, the emergence of TikTok as the new Vine, and not even having to spend five months by myself. What impacted me was time and how suddenly, what seemed like a blessing turned into a curse. It is 2 am, and my wrist hurts from awkwardly holding my phone; I have been trying to sleep since 11 pm, but my mind keeps running: What the f*ck is going on?


As a child, there was a point when my parents had to beg me to go outside to play, but it wasn’t always like that. My parents tried to keep me away from social media for as long as possible. For years, I only cared about finishing my homework and playing soccer with my brother and cousin. Those years when I was innocent, when I could wear long basketball shorts and bright t-shirts, when having one friend was enough—the years when I did not care about what the rest of the world thought about me. Now, I find myself stuck living in a time where my presence online is more important than who I am. I feel the pressure of the whole world watching me, waiting for the moment I finally make a mistake.

I opened social media for the first time when I was 12 years old. As I scroll through my friends’ requests on Instagram, kids no older than 11 have sent me requests. It makes me cringe. I don’t want to sound old-school or dull, but life has become monotonous since everyone has become obsessed with social media. We all follow the same people, trends, and music; we even shop for the same clothing items. For example, I bought a $100 pair of jeans just because my Tiktok page told me I needed them. I am sure I am not the only person who has surrendered to what the internet tells them. New trends come and go; some are good, like metal straws and the ice bucket challenge. Some others just bring the worst of each person out — like the Birdbox Challenge and Pokemon Go.   

The hard pill to swallow when it comes to social media is that it has taken control of everything. But, honestly, how do you explain to someone that having less than 100 likes on an Instagram post is okay? We have created such a toxic online culture that likes define how much you are worth. Now that I am older, I can see what is wrong with that mindset, but growing up, I remember how self-conscious I was about every pic I posted and how important it was to follow the steps:

  1. Selfies. Full body pics are for girls with good bodies, and mine was not it.
  2. Editing. A plain picture is a mediocre one. It needs to be touched, and if your friend with a thousand followers does it, then it is better. If the image is not good, black and white always does the job.
  3. Time. Anything before 6 pm is lame. Cool and older kids always check and post their pictures around 7 pm, but never after 8:30 pm. Time = likes = popularity.
  4. Tell everyone. The moment you post, you need to tell the whole group chat you posted, so they can go like it and comment, which will boost your post.

Now that I am typing these “rules,” I realize how stupid they sound. It also reminded me of one of my favorite songs – Crazy by Simple Plan.

Tell me what’s wrong with society
When everywhere I look I see
Young girls dying to be on TV
Won’t stop ’til they’ve reached their dreams

Diet pills, surgery
Photoshopped pictures in magazines
Telling them how they should be
It doesn’t make sense to me
Is everybody going crazy?

Now, is everybody going crazy? Or am I the problem?

What would happen if I did not fit into the world created for me? A world where I need to study and then work for the rest of my life; a world where I need to dress girly but not like a teenager; a world where religion is not necessary anymore and having kids is not a dream anymore. For years, I have seen how cruel the world can be, even worse if you are naive. The idea of “wanting to grow up” to finally be free was and probably still is the biggest scam I have succumbed to. At the end of the day, half of the things you see on the internet are fake, but so many people take them as the ultimate truth. And wanting to go against the majority is scary.

I dreamt about finding love, getting married, and raising kids with the perfect husband for years. However, the more I thought about these dreams, the less likely they seemed. I can summarize how each relationship I’ve had has gone using five words: a different idea of love. I had my first crush. Then, the older guy, who I thought was more mature, and since he liked me, I was also mature (none of us were). After that, the first t heartbreak — I fell in love with my best friend, and he then fell in love with my girl best friend. By 14, I was sure love was not for me. Two years later, I decided to try again; however, the naive part of me was unaware of how much things change when you enter high school.

Parties, alcohol, drugs, and sex, but love was never an option. Every Friday, while all my friends were out partying and making out with strangers, I was alone in my room watching their Snapchat and Instagram stories. What a loser, you might think. I was a loser, but was I wrong for trying to find love? Was I wrong for wanting to fall in love with someone and stay together longer than three months? Was I wrong for thinking about the future? When did society start to tell me how I wanted to love was wrong? When did love became a competition to see who could hook up with the most boys? When did still being a virgin mean that you were wasting your life? The world was not stopping, and social media kept adding to the struggle of growing up in the internet era.

I saw my friends post about their perfect relationships when I knew about all the fights and cheating scandals. I read posts about lovely moms for Mother’s Day when half of my friends couldn’t even communicate with theirs. Pictures about a current disaster were everywhere, asking for help and donations when I knew my friends were the first to ignore a homeless man begging for food. Wanting to be someone else was the norm because showing who you are meant social suicide. Many still fail to realize that the word suicide has slowly started becoming a reality for many young teenagers – teenagers who fail to live up to the expectations of many faceless trolls hiding behind a screen.

According to the Global Health Organization, suicide is the fourth leading cause of death among 15 to 29-year-olds. I wish I could act surprised, but this is something well known among my generation. I was 14 the first time I thought about dying, the same age I was when my “friends” started bullying me for not using curse words, going to church with my parents, wanting to find long-lasting love, and many other views. Years later, I still think about death constantly. I know there is something wrong with me, but nowadays, everyone wants to die, so I don’t know what to believe anymore. It is a coping mechanism for me, but I know deep down I am scared. However, I don’t actually fear death and how it might present to me, but how fast it is approaching. There is no point living in a world that is slowly dying, thanks to global warming and an older generation that cares more about two girls kissing each other than the well-being of their children. Dying is this generation’s joke, and if that does not make you wonder what the fuck is going on with society, you are part of the problem.

It is 2022, and I deactivated my Instagram 6 months ago. The Coronavirus is here to stay. I eat two meals a day and go to the gym, so I don’t kill myself. I listen to sad music when I am happy. I stay up scrolling down TikTok until 2 am. I drink more coffee than water, and I ignore my parents as much as possible. I follow clothes trends, and I dye my hair. Welcome to the world where teenagers are “talking back” to their parents if they express how their actions make them feel. A world where having no social media is a red flag[1]. A world where having a college degree does not take you anywhere most of the time. A very warm welcome to the world where nothing makes sense anymore, and at the end of the day, the same question goes without an answer — What the f*ck is going on?


Arlene Maria Rosales Alvarado, born and raised in El Salvador, I left my house when I was 16 to study in an international high school in rural India through the United World College program. I fell in love with writing and film while there and once I graduated I was accepted into the University of Oklahoma on a full scholarship. I am currently 21-years-old and a junior in college pursuing a double major in Creative Media Production and English Writing. I plan on going to Grad school for Creative Writing and I hope to write a book that I can later turn into a movie. 

[1]  Red flag: a sign or warning of any impending danger, disaster or doom. This is the Urban Dictionary’s definition, which is nothing less than another fake source teenagers (myself included) use to feel like they are making a difference.

Father’s Day

By Kate E. Lore

            Maybe for father’s day I could rent a boat and take him out to the lake. We could go fishing like we did when I was a kid. Maybe I could introduce him to Columbus, and Cincinnati the way he showed my Chicago. Maybe I’ll stick to cities with C’s to start; Cleveland, Charlotte, Colorado Springs. Maybe he’d have flown out to see me read my work at Corpus Christi for Texas A&M University. Maybe he would have felt proud to watch me win first place. Maybe it would make up for that time in middle school when I tied for second place with Power of the Pen. He lived within walking distance. But I didn’t invite him. It wasn’t that I didn’t want him to go, it’s just that I hadn’t heard from him in so long. I guess I’d gotten too used to his absence. Like now.

            Once when I was working at Mc Donald’s, my first job, second year, I was seventeen, I saw a man who looked like him, like my father. My heart leapt up so high in my throat it choked me with shock. Without thinking I rushed out from behind the counter, and through the door. I chased this man to the edge of the parking lot. He turned around. A stranger.

            It never happened again. I don’t even double take anymore. I’ve gotten used to his absence.

            If my father were alive he would have gone to my high school graduation. If he could. If my father were alive he might have gone to my community college graduation, watched me get an associates degree, watched me get my bachelors degree, maybe I’d invite him here to see me receive a masters. Maybe he’d stay off heroin for good. Maybe he’d get his life together. Maybe he’d get back together with Karen and we could go fishing again at that pond by her condo where I once caught a carp. Where I once went swimming with my friends.

            Once I saw him in a dream. My father. I kept asking why I hadn’t seen him in so long. He wouldn’t tell me why. He kept changing the subject, shifting the way dreams do, morphing again and again into something else. When I woke up I remembered. A cold shock of water. I remembered his absence.

            Maybe if my father were alive I wouldn’t have made such bad choices. Maybe if my father were alive my sister would be better adjusted now as an adult. Maybe her anxiety would ease like a slow release of air. Less pressure. Maybe if my father were alive I’d have asked him for his advice on Los Angelis. What to see and do in this non-C city? Maybe I’d tell him about my professors, maybe I’d tell him about my friends, that one homeless guy, that one ex, her, him, them. Maybe I’d tell him about you.

            Maybe I’d answer the phone every time he called me no matter what. No matter where I was, no matter what I was doing. Maybe I’d never turn my phone off. Maybe I’d keep the volume up, always, no matter what. Maybe I’d keep it on vibrate too. Maybe I’d carry a battery pack. Extra charger. Maybe I’d make up for that period of time in which I refused to speak to him. That long never goodbye. The silence that grew and grew and became forever. A silence so long I can scarcely remember the sound of him. An absence gotten used to.

            Maybe If my father were alive we’d have a huge graduation party and invite over all our family and friends. We’d plan it over the phone. Maybe we’d face time, months of arrangements and research. Maybe we’d fight about the theme. Maybe I’d want to keep it simple but he’d want more. Maybe we’d compromise and settle on a cookout by the lake. A fish fry. Maybe the charcoal would burn too hot and our smoke would bellow up into the sky, a trail, a cloud of silver lining, something to be seen from Cleveland, from Chicago, like a flag of pride, a boast, a scream. Maybe we’d run and charge like there was never anything to fear in the first place, no reason to avoid, nothing to make up for, maybe we’d jump out so far and so wide each splash was an explosion, each wave tidal, something louder than a phone call, an absence that could never be missed. Water like a river running for millions of years carving deep into the earth the words we never said, the words we owe each other, I’m sorry where it can never be missed, never forgotten.


Kate E Lore is a writer of both fiction and nonfiction. With many publications in both genres, Kate has been featured in Orsum magazine, and Longridge Review. Originally from Dayton Ohio, Kate is currently earning a master’s degree in creative writing from Miami University. Kate got her bachelor’s from The Ohio State University.

A jack-of-all-trades Kate splits her time up between fiction and nonfiction, screenplays, flash prose, full-length novels, painting, and comics.

Kate is openly queer and neurodivergent. She grew up the youngest of four, scraping by on low income, raised by a single widowed mother.

Kateelore.com, @kateelore (Twitter), kate.e.lore (Instagram), https://www.facebook.com/writerlore/

Zone Valves

By Graeme Hunter

In early 1991, I interviewed for a faculty position at the University of Western Ontario.  During my visit, a real-estate agent drove me around some residential areas in northwest London.  I remember being impressed by Orchard Park, a quiet, leafy subdivision within cycling distance of campus. 

I was offered the job, and accepted it.  A few months later, my wife Francine went to London to find us a house.  Unfortunately Orchard Park turned out to be too expensive for us.  Her search narrowed down to two houses in White Hills, less leafy and a bit further from the university.  She faxed me the details, and we made our decision.    

At the end of the summer, Francine and I moved to London and took possession of our new house.  It didn’t have much curb appeal: aluminum siding, a prominent garage, no street-facing windows on the main floor.  But I already knew that from the photographs that Francine had taken.  The unpleasant surprises began when we went inside.  The living room was dark, with stuccoed walls.  The bedrooms each had a different colour of carpet and a different type of garish wallpaper.  Every renovation or repair had been done in the most half-assed manner imaginable.  For example, the en-suite powder room, which I referred to as “the Black Hole of Calcutta”, was floored with sheet linoleum that curled up at the edges, because whoever installed it hadn’t bothered to remove the baseboards first. 

Me: “This is so ugly!”

Francine: “I don’t remember it looking like this!”

But the low point was the dining room.  It had a carpeted floor, and walls that were adorned with gold-patterned mirror tiles.

Me: “These tiles look like something you would find in a New Orleans cat-house.”

Francine: “How would you know?”

More unpleasant surprises lay behind the house’s walls and under its flooring.  The wiring was aluminum, a known fire risk.  The bedroom walls had never been primed, so stripping the wallpaper also removed the paper backing of the wallboard, as well as some of the underlying gypsum.  Worst of all, the house had electrical baseboard heaters.  Despite having access to vast amounts of free power from Niagara Falls, the province of Ontario had some of the highest electricity rates in the world.  Heating our new house through the impending winter was going to bankrupt us. 

We got rid of the baseboard heaters and installed a more efficient forced-air system.  Now we had affordable electricity bills, but we also had gaps in our baseboards, holes in our walls and ceilings, and exposed ductwork running everywhere.  This in addition to the bordello tiles, grotty carpeting, Age of Aquarius wallpaper, and all the other problems we had inherited. 

In short, the place needed a lot of work.

Fortunately, help was at hand.  Francine’s dad, Nick, was co-owner of a home-building company.  He’d come to Canada from Italy with fifty dollars in his pocket and no marketable skills.  By claiming to be a trained carpenter, he’d found a job on a building site, where he faked it until he learned the trade.  After many years, he and a paesano were able to start their own business. Thanks to hard work, luck and bribes to municipal politicians, they became millionaires, at a time when that word was not yet synonymous with “home-owner”. 

Nick and his wife were happy to come to London every weekend: she to play with her granddaughter, he to work on the house.  The problem was that I was expected to help him, and I was emphatically not a handyman.  Things got off to a bad start when Nick asked me for a hammer.  When I brought him the only one I owned, he laughed.  “That’s a child’s hammer!” 

Way to emasculate your son-in-law, Nick!  Don’t you want any more grandchildren?

Thereafter he brought his own tools, and we set to work: building a wall between the kitchen and dining-room, installing a French door, enclosing the new ductwork, tiling the carpeted floors.  To elaborate on the plural pronoun: Nick did all the actual work, while I brought him the tools he needed.  Once I had learned what “spikes” and “two-by-fours” were, and the difference between Phillips and Robertson screwdrivers, I was allowed to graduate to simple, hands-on tasks – such as using a proper, man-sized hammer to drive “spikes” into “two-by-fours”. 

Nick believed in building things to last.  Maybe it’s because he was Italian: the Coliseum is still standing, after all, and Rome’s first-century Pantheon looks like it was completed yesterday.  The wooden frame Nick made to enclose the heating ducts was so robust that I could hang from it and do chin-ups.  He brought the same philosophy to a closet he built in the family room.  I decided that, if nuclear war broke out, the family would take shelter there.  London might become a post-apocalyptic wasteland, but our family-room closet would still be standing.

Eventually Nick lost interest in spending every weekend working on his daughter’s house.  Now I was on my own.  Francine would have helped (or so she said), except that she was pregnant again.  Apparently that was my fault!  But I’d served my apprenticeship, and now knew the rudiments of home renovation: rough carpentry, drywalling, some wiring, a bit of plumbing.  One of my solo projects was replacing the flooring in the Black Hole of Calcutta.  When I took up the linoleum, which had a garish pink floral pattern, I was baffled to find beneath it another layer of the exact same lino!  Below that was a layer of blue vinyl tiles.  By the time I reached the subfloor, I felt like Schliemann at Troy. 

Eventually I was proficient enough to build my own wall, although I had to get Nick out of retirement to hang the door in its opening.  As far as I know, my wall is still standing, although I wouldn’t expect it to survive World War Three.      

Throughout the disruptions of all these renovations, Francine and I consoled ourselves that this was just our starter home; in five years or so, we’d be able to move up in the world.  But the mid-nineties were lean years for Ontario, and its university sector wasn’t spared.  Even with help from Francine’s parents, it was nine years before we were able to think about house-hunting.  By that time we had replaced every surface in the house.  No more, I vowed.  I’m hanging up my toy hammer.  In the next house, I don’t want to do anything.

We found that house by accident.  Cycling to work one morning, I came across an “open house” sign at the end of a street in Sherwood Forest, which was even leafier than Orchard Park.  I detoured along the street and found the house.  It was all brick, built on a centre-hall plan.  When I got to work, I phoned Francine.  We arranged that she’d pick me up at lunchtime.

I’d made a mistake.  The house wasn’t open to the public – the sign I’d seen indicated a viewing for real-estate agents.  But even though the property hadn’t been gussied up yet, the owner agreed to let us see it.  A potential customer is a potential customer, after all.  For the most part, the interior was as attractive as the exterior.  Hardwood flooring throughout, crown moulding, large windows, a separate dining room, stained-glass panels flanking the front door.  The basement was only semi-finished, but that wasn’t a deal-breaker – the house we were living in didn’t even have a basement.    

There was only one thing wrong with the house – the asking price was more than Francine and I could afford.  We made a lowball offer; the owners counteroffered.  We found some spare change down the back of the sofa, and made a higher offer; the owners made a new counteroffer.  But it was still too rich for our blood.  We told our realtor to forget it, and I went off to a conference.  A couple of days later, I phoned Francine from New Hampshire, and she told me that the owners of the Sherwood Forest house had decided to accept our second offer.

“Can they do that?” I asked.

Well, it turns out that they could.  And, as a result, we had our dream home. 

It was the beginning of November when we moved in, and it soon became obvious that the family room, which had been an addition to the original building, was unpleasantly cold.  Unlike our previous house, this one had a hot-water heating system.  And for some reason, the hot water wasn’t reaching the radiators in the addition. 

So we called a plumber.  He told us that we were lucky to have hot-water heating, because that was the best system.  When we asked him why it was the best system, he explained that radiant heat was “warmer” than that produced by forced-air furnaces.  I studied chemistry in my youth and retain a passing familiarity with the laws of thermodynamics.  But I don’t understand how any form of heat can be “warmer” than any other form of heat, unless it’s actually, you know, at a higher temperature.  

The plumber also explained that the family room, as well as about half of the original main floor, was on a separate “zone” from the rest of the house.  Flow of hot water through each of the zones was governed by a valve, which was opened and closed by a thermostat in the corresponding part of the house. 

Unfortunately he wasn’t able to fix the problem.  Nor, as it subsequently turned out, were other plumbers who worked for his company, or plumbers who worked for different companies.  No matter how much they tinkered with the system, the family room remained an uninhabitable meat-locker.  Giving up, we installed a gas fireplace.

The fireplace kept the room warm for many years, although the noise of its blower was a bit annoying, particularly if you were watching television.  But I had bigger problems, principally Francine being diagnosed with cancer.  Five years after she died, I remarried, and my new wife moved into the house.  Sue didn’t seem to understand that the stone-cold radiators in the family room were just a fact of nature.  She thought we should get them fixed.  So we started over again, this time with a new team of plumbers.  Over the next few years, these gentlemen (and one lady) replaced various pipes, pumps, valves and gauges with shiny new pipes, pumps, valves and gauges.  Unfortunately, all this work on their part, and expense on ours, resulted in at best a temporary warming of the family-room rads. 

But at least by now I had learned enough about my heating system to converse intelligently about it with the plumbing profession.  It seemed to me that the problem must be the zone valve controlling the addition.  After all, if the shiny new boiler was heating water, and the shiny new pump was sending that water to the rest of the house through shiny new piping, surely the leading suspect was the valve controlling flow to the family room?  However, a succession of plumbers “tested” the zone valve, and assured me that it worked perfectly.  Look, Graeme, try it yourself.  You just have to turn this wheel.  Hear the click?  That’s the sound of the valve opening.  See, the wheel continues around until it’s back at the starting position.  So the zone valve is fine.  That will be three hundred dollars, please.  Cash, check or credit card?

But, to paraphrase Sherlock Holmes, if every other part of your home-heating system has been replaced, then the one part that hasn’t been replaced, no matter how merrily it spins around, must be the culprit.  I phoned the plumbing company once again and asked them to send someone to replace the zone valve.  The woman in the office promised to do so, and assured me that, as it was a standard part, a new zone valve didn’t have to be ordered – the plumber would have one in his (or her) truck. 

When the plumber arrived, he insisted on “checking the system” – in other words, performing a billable diagnostic procedure that I didn’t want or need.  Then, when he admitted that maybe the zone valve was the problem, he told me that he didn’t have one with him, and would have to come back another day.  But in the fullness of time it came to pass that the old valve was removed and replaced with a shiny new one.

When the plumber was packing up his kit, he told me that, just out of curiosity, he’d disassembled the old zone valve to see what the problem was.  It turns out that the teeth of the spinning wheel were supposed to engage with those of another wheel mounted perpendicularly to it.  However, the teeth of the invisible second wheel were stripped.  Thus the visible wheel was turning, clicking, and doing absolutely nothing! 

“How about that?” I said, parting with another five hundred dollars.  Then I went upstairs and put my hand on the deliciously warm metal of the family-room radiators, doing their job at last.


Graeme Hunter‘s essays have been published in Riddle Fence, Queen’s Quarterly, Talking Soup, The Writing Disorder and Canadian Notes & Queries.  His web site is https://graemehunter.ca/.

To my son,
whose name I do not know….

by Yolanda Wysocki

“Child with a child pretending
Weary of lies you are sending home
So you sign all the papers in the family name
You’re sad and you’re sorry, but you’re not ashamed.”

—Joni Mitchell

In 1970, annual numbers for children being
placed for adoption in the US increased to a
peak of 89,200, then quickly declined to an
estimated 47,700 in 1975.

In 1970, the dominant psychological and
social work view was that the large majority
of unmarried mothers were better off being
separated by adoption from their newborn

“In most cases, adoption was presented to
the mothers as the only option and little or
no effort was made to help the mothers
keep and raise the children.”

62% of children adopted through private adoption
were placed with their adoptive families within a
month of birth.

Researchers find that generally children adopted
before the age of six-months fare no differently than
children raised with their biological parents.

68% of adoptees are read to every day as young
children, versus 48% of children who are not adopted.

73% of adopted children were sung to and told
stories to every day, compared to 59% of
children who were not adopted.

Making me faint on the “L” platform
on my way to work,
you announced your existence
and got my attention.

Arrested, robbed,
fired, evicted;
at the time you were
one piece
of bad news
among many.

A “foot doctor”
(with the largest feet I ever saw),
and some other MD,
illegal abortionists:
no phone? no car? no money?
“no way”
your fate was determined

as well by your father,
who had said he was sterile,
then refused to give me
the hundred bucks he had borrowed
and told everyone
I was lying about you.

an ad:
“Young people wanted to restart farm in rural Wisconsin”
a stroke cancelled their plans,
Divine intercession,
stroke of luck, kindness
whatever you call it,
I went alone.

Volkswagen bug of a trailer,
plopped in the middle of cow fields
six miles out of town.
know something?
my mother and your mother,
pregnant, alone in the country
she was terrified,
me?  finally, at peace.

I loved you
with your miniature combat boot kicks.
I wanted you to have what I could not give you…
a loving home, security, love, two parents…
so much more than I had to offer.

I didn’t want to pass on
the dysfunction
I carried inside me like a twin nestling
Alongside you
But you carried
abandonment, didn’t you?

Endless labor,
screaming alone,
an aide sitting silently
watching from the corner;
Finally they knocked me out
and you were born,

Your bassinet turned to the wall.
After carrying you and loving you,
I couldn’t NOT see you.
I insisted.
At long last there you were behind the glass,
one quick glance.
As I turned away to ask a question,
they took you away…

Six weeks later, living with my parents,
who should have been
proud grandparents
never telling them about you
but a friend from Wisconsin
broke my trust and called,
we all acted
as if nothing had changed,
everyone knew
everything had.

Four years later,
watching a TV show on adoption,
my first memory
of having

forgive me.
You are in my thoughts,
my heart and prayers.
May our paths cross again.
With love,
Your birth mother

There is a recent news photo from
Afghanistan of a crying baby still in diapers
being passed from a set of parent’s hands
over razor wire to another set of hands
belonging to an American soldier.

There are no photos of all the children
taken, stolen, snatched, beaten away from
their parents’ grief in countries all around
the world, including times of slavery.

There are no photos of children being sold,
given away by their parents to traffickers
because of poverty, greed, despair.

Sometimes children are passed into hands
that will protect them, feed them, clothe
them, love them, and sometimes into
hands that will abuse them.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Why did you leave me/let me go/reject me/abandon me?

First it wasn’t personal in that I had never met you; the decision was made long before you were born.  Know I love you but I couldn’t give you what I wanted you to have. I hope you received those in abundance!

  • What are my birth parents like? We weren’t famous or rich or anything special. Me an 18yo naïve young girl on my own for the first time. Your father, 15 years older, a contractor who denied your existence. I was never a drug addict or alcoholic or any other kind of addict you may have been worried about.
    • DO You ever think about me?  OF COURSE I DO!  I have always kept you close in my heart, though I had let go of the sorrow years ago. I only hope you have had a great life so far and it would be nice to finally meet you.
    • Do I have any brothers or sisters? No you are an only child, but you have cousins and great cousins. Your grandparents have all died. 
    • How do I answer questions about my “real parents?”  The folks that raised you are your real parents. I am your birth mother.
    • Why don’t I look like anyone else in my family? I am sure you now know that you are adopted. Both I and your father are short people with curly hair. I have never seen your adoptive family, though I helped choose where you went. I hope they’re not all tall and straight-haired skinny people!

Frequently thought but Never Asked Questions: PLEASE FILL IN THE BLANKS.

  • How did you find out you were adopted and how did you feel?  Did you feel a need to forgive me? And did you?
    • What were your worst fears about me? Are you willing to know the truth?
    • Were you happy and well-loved as a child? 
    • Did you have brothers and sisters to grow up with?
    • What was the best day of your life? Worst? How/Who are you now? 
    • Are you happy with your life now?

Illinois Adoption Reunion Registry

Were you born in Illinois? Or are you searching for someone born in Illinois? Adopted.com is proud to offer an Illinois state adoption reunion registry where you can meet by mutual consent without having to open records. We have provided a form on this page for you to check your matches. If both parties want to meet then you can find each other on Adopted.com! Adult adoptees who are 21 years or older are able to request a non-certified copy of their original birth certificate.

Find Birth Parents Guide
Describes how adoptees can conduct research about their birth families and prepare for reconnection. Search and Reunion in Domestic and International Adoption [Webinar]
Center for Adoption Support and Education (2018)
Discusses reasons that adoptees choose to search for birth relatives, outlines the search and reunion process, and describes common relational dynamics present during reunions.


Yolanda Wysocki has an MA in the Study of Human Consciousness, and two BA’s. She retired from a career in Social Services, Counseling, and Life Coaching in 2020, and is now pursuing a creative and spiritual life focused on writing, photography and meditation. Although she has been writing—poetry, bits of fiction, interviews—for several years, discovering creative non-fiction last year felt like a perfect fit. Her second- ever-to-be-published essay was recently published in Stories That Need to be Told 2022. She lives in the Portland Oregon area.

The Scholar

by Margaret King

The scholar wishes she had begun writing poetry many years ago, that she had been writing it all along, all along. The scholar regrets that she buried her true self under intellectual thought, and for years, thought using words like “beautiful” was weak and silly and a ploy to get someone into bed. She mistrusted beauty for so long, because she couldn’t really feel, because she feared ridicule and rejection, and because study was her strength, or so she thought, so she was told throughout her childhood and college years. 

The scholar had never been pretty or popular or especially gifted in sports or in being nice or kind or selfless, and so, she buttressed herself behind books and essays and philosophy, because rejecting her scholarly arguments was not a rejection of her, but of mere ideas. As scholarly arguments were built on the shoulders of other scholars’ work and thoughts, there was a solidarity to it. Rejecting a thesis was challenging the great thinkers before her, and that was exciting and the point of research, anyway.

Still, the scholar concludes that she was an asshole a lot of the time during this period–not intentionally, but is only now learning how to be a better person. After all, all her emotions and love and appreciation for the beautiful and broken things were there all along, just sleeping so far under the snow, so frozen, that they were hibernating and rarely came out for nourishment. The scholar can always tell people her poetry is fiction, and that way, if they scoff or become angry at something she has written, she can claim it isn’t autobiographical. Hopefully. For the most part. 

The scholar used to hate winter growing up, but now she has a child, and the child’s sheer joy at waking up to snow, his cheerful intrepid donning of layers to march outside and embrace the cold, make her excited, even if vicariously. The scholar should buy him new snowpants today, as her town just got its first snow unexpectedly early in the season. 

But instead, the scholar is sitting here, writing this informal essay about how she’s no longer afraid to talk about all the beauty she sees around her.



Margaret King enjoys penning poetry and flash fic. Her recent work has appeared in MoonPark Review, Levatio Magazine, Nightingale & Sparrow, and Great Lakes Review. In 2021, she was nominated for a Pushcart for her eco-flash fiction story “The Sky Is Blue.” She teaches tai chi in Wisconsin. She is also the author of the poetry collection, Isthmus.

The Peshaman Fragments

by Greg Sendi

Following the highly publicized disappearance of Elias Peshaman late last year, this unfinished manuscript was found among a small number of cloud files authorities reviewed for possible information related to his whereabouts.


It is a mouth radically different from other human mouths — infused with an eerie otherworldliness. The mouth attracts attention precisely because of its unsettling difference. It seizes the attention of others because, like a catastrophic car accident, we can’t look away. To some, this mouth is hyper-real and in its weird fleshiness, suggests an authenticity, the way a blood-rare steak suggests “real food.”

When at rest, the mouth often does not relax but returns to a puckered, circular kissing shape that suggests it is at once both open and closed, an orifice of both inbound and outbound potential. Let’s be honest, this mouth also has an anal quality to it and is always pantomiming an expulsion of waste. It is always conveying the ejection of impurity, mirroring his promises to eject things and people.

There is also the tongue. Disabled by the neuro-impairments that prevent its full control, the tongue throbs, bends and extrudes in ways that reinforce the expulsion conveyed by the lips.

In its totality, the shape of the mouth as an emblem of disgust and discharge is also connected to his frequent interest in what comes out of human bodies, especially the bodies of women. It enacts his revulsion at excretion, for example, or menstruation or breast feeding.


altogether ill at ease about what is happening with us


The water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes) is a large aquatic plant native to the Amazon basin. It is known chiefly for its ability to overwhelm the surface of bodies of water, pushing out native species and depleting its water ecosystem of oxygen, suffocating all fish, water creatures and other plants.

So too, all the things he is — liar, chiseler, malignant degenerate, traitor, deadbeat, daughterfucker wannabe, child rapist — may be viewed as precisely evolved for indifference to the question of what a “pond,” is actually for. The old blackhats (Ratched, Moriarty) are quaint by comparison.


His skin, like the fixtures around him, in the primitive way imaginable, conveys that he cannot escape how gold rushes in upon him, following him like a cloud of gold dust seeking the man who is both its source and its destination. He is Chrysos, Xipe Totec, Midas, Shen Wanshan, Goldfinger, communicating with every image not that “I’m like my people” but rather “I’m radically unlike my people or any people.”

But in its obvious artificiality there is more. With his skin, he is sending us a message deeper than, “I am a golden man.” The message also says, “I am wearing a me-shaped golden suit.” His skin invites you to imagine an inner creature, but simultaneously humiliates you for accepting the invitation.

To some, the skin is an alarm light alerting to a dangerous duplicity — the way the coloration of certain animals alerts other animals not to eat them. To others, the situation is more complex. Via its alchemy, broadly speaking, there can be a gratitude, even a love, engendered by the ways he affirms the fundamental duplicity, and the inevitability of the way things are.

The skin serves both as camouflage (allowing him to blend in with the other perceived liars — like certain poisonous toads blend in with a pile of leaves in the forest) and as a beacon calling attention to itself as camouflage (providing a basis of assurance and trust — as if he might be the one true leaf in a pile of poisonous toads).


read marcus aurelius of each particular thing ask what is it in itself what is its nature what does he do this man you seek


In totality, we know this as “The Uncanny Valley,” a term coined by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori to describe the phenomenon by which robots become deeply disconcerting to us at the point where they come closest to mimicking human features.

The Uncanny Valley teaches us to think about how we are different (if we are) and how we are the same (if we are). Perhaps it teaches an instinctive revulsion at the not-quite-human — an instinct that may have prevented our early ancestors from breeding with apes. Though perhaps also (if not instead), it teaches us revulsion at ourselves, at what we are capable of. Perhaps it forces us to ask: When face to face with a monster masquerading as your companion, what do you do?

Mirroring the nausea created by our experience, his experience as a sociopath may be one of looking at us across his Uncanny Valley, where he is unable to see or feel the full humanity of any person — to distinguish emotionally between a chair, a car, a bucket, a fish or child. To operate across his Valley, he creates simulacra of human engagement to deal with people because he is unable to generate actual human responses.

Little by little as he deprives our pond of oxygen, he becomes less able to conceal the fact that when he looks at us, no matter who we are, he sees the same lifeless mask we see when we look at him, useful to him or useless, using our own shames and weaknesses and hatreds against us the way serial killer might use the skin of his victim to make a lampshade.


my god my god to be haunted by the end of everything we are and have created together it is like choking finally after all it will be like choking my god they are gouging his eyes with a flagpole i think

Here Peshaman’s manuscript ends, providing scant basis for development of a general synthesis. While pleased to share this important manuscript with specialist and lay audiences, overall, we urge caution in the extrapolation of broad-brush conclusions from what was clearly a work left unfinished and in disarray at the time of his disappearance.


Greg Sendi is a Chicago writer and former fiction editor at Chicago Review. His career has included broadcast and trade journalism as well as poetry and fiction. In the past year, his work has appeared or been accepted for publication in a number of literary magazines and online outlets, including Apricity, Beyond Words Literary Magazine, The Briar Cliff Review, Burningword Literary Journal, Clarion, CONSEQUENCE, Flashes of Brilliance, Great Lakes Review, The Headlight Review, The Masters Review, New American Legends, Plume, Pulp Literature, San Antonio Review, Sparks of Calliope, and upstreet.

Deconstructing Gertrude Stein

by Stephen D. Abney

“A rose is a rose is a rose.”  In this paper, we explore the intricacies of this oft-quoted statement by Gertrude Stein through a discursive textual analysis[1],[2] of each word in serie, in an attempt to definitize the meaning of each,[3] while realizing its connectivity to metaethics.[4]  Having set the paradigmatic table, as it were, we begin.

A:  In American education, A refers to the top grade in an ABCDE or ABCDF grading rubric.  In some school districts and colleges, A can be modified to A+ or A-, with A+ then becoming the highest possible grade. 

However, use of A to signify the highest or best is not universal in the United States.  Consider these counterexamples: In minor league baseball, the A leagues fall below the AA and AAA leagues.  In high school athletics, schools are often classified by size for competitive purposes, so that a high school with 50 students does not compete against one with 5,000; this is particularly true for football, although state athletic associations frequently use a classification for other interscholastic sports as well.[5] 

Similarly, in financial markets, A represents the sixth highest credit rating for a bond in the Standard and Poor’s grading system.  AAA, AA+, AA, AA- and A+ bonds are all better than A bonds.[6] 

While this level of detail is not required to parse Gertrude Stein’s intent, we can nonetheless safely conclude that “A” represents a grade[7] of some sort. Which classification system she was referencing is a detail to be examined later.

Rosé[8]: A wine with a pinkish color, between that of a red wine and a white wine.  This coloration occurs as a result of the red grape skins coming in contact with the juice less than is the case for actual red wines.  Few current wine classifications use letter designations.  However, the St. Emilion Classification of 1955 notably held 1st 1e Grand Cru Classe A as its highest class, just above 2nd 1e Grand Cru Classe B.  As Stein died in 1946, this particular rating schema could not have been her inspiration.  Nevertheless, as Stein attended both Radcliffe and Johns Hopkins, and lived in France for many years, it is certainly conceivable that a precursor to the St. Emilion wine grading system is intended.

Is: The singular, first-person, present-tense form of the verb “to be.”  Here, Stein cleverly uses one short word to convey several powerful concepts.  First, she alludes to singularity, perhaps in the sense of uniqueness, but also, perhaps in the sense of unwedded bliss.  Then, she reminds us that a personal experience is being portrayed.  This is not a mass event, nor is it second-hand, a vicarious experience belonging to someone else and only shared with the author afterward.

Further, she does not write “a rose are,” which could be second person, or plural, or both.  Rather, this is intimately first person.  She claims reality for the rose.  She also provides a time element.  The rose is … now![9]  The immediacy of her writing could not be clearer on this.  Finally, Stein provides existential truth.  “A rose is.”  If she had stopped there, she would have pronounced a truth well worth remembrance.  However, she continues, ever more deeply.

A:  Singular, indefinite pronoun.  Again, Stein emphasizes singularity.  Note how easily she combines the singular “is” with the singular “a.” Now, however, she denies uniqueness. A unique, specific item would typically be denoted by “the,” not “a.”  She has moved us swiftly from consideration of unity, to a discussion of universality.  A rose stands for all roses in this sense.  We see Plato’s cave shadows[10] in that any rose is an exemplar of all roses, a standard-bearer for rosedom, as it were.  Stein clearly recognizes the inherent tension of living one’s self-interest while living in community, the same tension France experienced during her life there, as communism and capitalism struggled to win French hearts and minds. 

Rose: A flower of the genus Rosa.  A symbol of romantic love[11] since ancient times, the rose is perhaps the most purchased flower in the world.  However, it is unlikely Stein is alluding to purchased love[12], whether via prostitution, dowry, bride price, or through the Western ritual of dating in which both wine and roses play prominent roles.  She appears rather to refer us to the single rosebud, a potent symbol of chaste love, love that has not yet fully blossomed.  Elsewhere, Stein wrote, “What is marriage, is marriage protection or religion, is marriage renunciation or abundance, is marriage a stepping-stone or an end. What is marriage.” 

The Cherokee rose, Rosa laevigata, a symbol of the state of Georgia, is ironically an invasive species from China.  The irony[13] of existentialism finds “full flower” in this selection of a cultivar named after people driven from Georgia by President Andrew Jackson and his minions[14] following passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830[15] and originating in an area from which migrants to Georgia were excluded.[16]  Stein uses this imagery to demonstrate historic solidarity with those oppressed peoples.

Is: In mathematics and logic, equal or proportionate.  One plus one is two.[17]  A is to B as B is to C.[18]  One should not, however, reduce “a rose is a rose is a rose” to the tautological x = x = x, which would be to trivialize Stein’s profound insights.  Further, she does not appear to intend comedic relief, as seen in “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”[19],[20] Egalité in the political sense seems to be intended here.[21] 

If Stein is using rose in its symbolic sense to represent romantic love, then she clearly espouses marriage equality.  In this, love is seen as a natural state, an innate human need to minimize suffering.[22]  As Wilde may have said, “Any love is good love.”[23]

Arose:  In Christian theology, the belief that Jesus resurrected from death.[24]  Unlike the Phoenix story in Greek mythology, this renewal occurs once.  As a singular event, “arose” completes Stein’s theme, initiated with “is” and “a”. 

It is not surprising that deconstructionists from weird[25] societies, who have uncovered Christian symbology in works by authors as diverse as de Pisan, Faulkner, Achebe and Carle,[26] find a religious undertone in Stein’s seminal phrase.  It would perhaps be more surprising had they not.

As depicted by Stein, the Christ story also contrasts with the Prometheus story in which the nightly rebirth only extends his punishment.  If Stein were alluding to Prometheus, then the theme becomes much darker.  By giving of himself (figuratively, by providing fire to humans), Prometheus is condemned to give of himself (literally, by having his heart ripped out each day).  Whereas having one’s “heart ripped out” is one possible outcome of a spurned romance, we cannot reject the hypothesis that Stein intends her audience to recall such feelings in their own lives; however, we much reject this as the main thrust of her statement.

In a larger sense, Stein avers resurrection and rebirth evoke awakening to a new reality, an elevation to a higher plane. Love and, dare we say, spirits, remind us that “being is becoming.”[27] This enlightenment, this fulfillment, provides the basis of Stein’s notion of Hegelian Aufhebung[28], with its dual sense of lifting up and self-abnegation.

Note that “arose” in its spiritual sense brings us full circle to the spirit, the rose, at the beginning of her epigrammatic expression.  Clearly then, when Stein says, “a rose is a rose is a rose,” she means “Love intoxicates and uplifts my spirit,” and not, as others have supposed, “Mon Dieu, I love this wine.”

[1] Derrida, “Of Grammatology” (Les Éditions de Minuit, 1967)

[2] Heidegger, Sein und Zeit (1927)

[3] Foucault, L’archéologie du savoir (1969)

[4] Blackburn, Essays in Quasi-Realism (1993)

[5] Florida, for example, maintains eight classes in football with 1A for the smallest schools and 8A for the largest One oddity, however, is Iowa’s classification system for high school eleven-person football, which has five classes designated A, 1A, 2A, 3A and 4A, so that 1A schools are larger than A schools.

[6] The competing Moody rating system uses Aaa, Aa1, Aa2, Aa3, A1, A2, A3, so that Moody’s A3 is roughly equivalent to S&P’s A.  Both systems use variations on B and C to designate bonds that are riskier than A-level bonds.  Note that Moody does not use A by itself as a grade.

[7] In its commodity grading programs, the US Department of Agriculture uses the letter A­­.  Inexplicably, the USDA has three grades for eggs, which humans eat, and 45 grades for cotton, which they do not. 

[8] In this researcher’s studied opinion, Stein defies convention, as always, by omitting the acute diacritic on this e; other scholars contend omission of this glyph was an editing error. Regardless, getting the é right is essential to understanding Stein.

[9] Heidegger’s term “dasein” is particularly cogent in this context.

[10] Plato, Πολιτεία (circa 380 BCE)

[11] De Meun, Roman de la Rose (1275)

[12] For an opposing view, see McCartney, Can’t Buy Me Love (1964)

[13] Kierkegaard, Om Begrebet Ironi med stadigt Hensyn til Socrates (1841)

[14] No, not those Minions©®™

[15] US Congress, Greatest Hits, Indian Removal Act (1830)

[16] US Congress, Greatest Hits, Chinese Exclusion Act (1882 – 1943)

[17] Euclid, Elements (a long time ago)

[18] Whitehead and Russell, Principia Mathematica (1910)

[19] Marx.  Every good academic paper must have at least one reference to Marx.

[20] For a different take on this, see Freud, Der Witz und seine Beziehung zum Unbewußten (1905), often translated as Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, or Jung’s Wandlungen und Symbole der Libido (1912).

[21] Recall the French motto, Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, was supplanted byTravail, Famille, Patrie in Vichy France and that Stein was living in France with Toklas at the time.

[22] Rousseau, Du Contrat Social, Principes du droit politique. (1762)

[23] Wilde, “Poems.”   While Wilde’s work was condemned as plagiarism during his lifetime, the actual origin of this phrase is lost to history.  See also: Overdrive, Bachman-Turner, You Ain’t (sic) Seen Nothin’ (sic) Yet (1974).

[24] Augustine, Confessions; Jerome, selected works; Origen, De principiis; various other dead white men.

[25] Diamond, The World Until Yesterday (2012).  WEIRD is shorthand for Western, educated, industrial, rich and democratic.  Diamond credits this construct to Henrich, Heine and Norenzayan’s 2010 articles in Nature and Behavioral and Brain Sciences, respectively entitled “Most people are not WEIRD” and “The Weirdest people in the world.”

[26] Joan of Arc (1429), The Bear (1942), Things Fall Apart (1958), and The Very Hungry Caterpillar (1969) respectively.  

[27] Hegel, as explicated by de Beauvoir

[28] Hegel, Wissenschaft der Logik, 1812


What’s In a Name?

by Graeme Hunter

1.  Graeme…

My parents had the foresight to pick out a name for me before I was born.  Unfortunately the name they chose was Lorna, which became a bit of a problem when I showed up with outdoor plumbing.  Maybe Mum and Dad were a bit hazy about the law of averages and thought that, already having two sons (David and John) and one daughter (Alison), they were guaranteed another girl.

But what’s the chances of me ending up married to someone who had also been prenatally misgendered?  Sue’s parents were anticipating a boy, and it wasn’t a boy named Sue – it was a boy named Roy.  In that case, it’s a bit more understandable, as Mr. and Mrs. Colquhoun already had three male children. 

So I was supposed to be Lorna, and Sue was supposed to be Roy.  I’d love to sign our Christmas cards that way, but I’m pretty sure that nobody would get the joke.  “Honey!  Do we know a Lorna and Roy?”

In giving me the name “Graeme” rather than its more common homonym “Graham”, my parents ensured that I would have to spell it out for the rest of my life.  Here’s how that works.

Person behind a counter:     “Name?”
Me:                                          “Graeme Hunter.” 
Person:                                   “How do you spell that?”
Me:                                          “Graeme?  It’s G-R-A-E-M-E.”
Person:                                   “G-R-A…” 
Me:                                          “…E-M-E.” 
Person:                                   “And what’s your last name again?”

Whenever I complained to my mum about this unnecessary complication, she told me that Graeme was the standard spelling in the south-west of Scotland, where she grew up.  And that seems to be true.  I remember being in a gift shop in Newton Stewart and seeing personalized mugs with the name Graeme, but none with its variant.  Take that, “Grey Ham”! 

In the end, it didn’t really matter which way my name was spelled, because most people called me Gordon.  In the Scotland of my childhood, that was a much more common name than Graeme (or Graham), so you can see why people defaulted to it.  When I moved to Canada, nobody called me Gordon anymore.  They called me Greg. 

Then Starbucks became a thing. 
Me:                  “A grande latte, please.”
Barista:           “Can I have your name for the cup?” 
Me:                  “Graeme.” 
Barista:           “How do you spell that?” 
Me:                  “I don’t care how you spell it!  It’s a disposable cup!” 

No, I didn’t say that.  I went through the usual spelling-Graeme routine.  When I got fed up with that, I tried using the name Greg.  But then the barista would write C-R-A-I-G.  It seemed that I couldn’t win.  Until the day a guy in front of me at Starbucks gave his name as Dave.  I had an epiphany.  Dave is the perfect disposable-cup name!  You can’t mishear Dave.  You can’t misspell Dave.  And as far as the Starbucks Corporation is concerned, I’ve been Dave ever since.

People who hear my first name can’t spell it; people who see it can’t pronounce it.  It’s not uncommon for people to phone me and ask to talk to “Grah-EEM” or “Grimy”.  Other people elect to give me a pet name.  One day my girlfriend called me at work.  The female co-worker who answered the phone yelled “Graemey!”  When I got on the line, the first thing Francine said was: “Who was that woman?  And why did she call you ‘Graemey’?”

My mother was almost ninety when she died, and to the end remained mentally sharp.  At some point, however, she lost the ability to distinguish between her three sons.  Sometimes she called me Graeme, but she was equally likely to call me David or John.  Or else she would scroll through a list of possible names, and call me Joh-Da-Graeme or Da-Joh-Graeme.  I didn’t take this personally.  I answered to David, I answered to John, I answered to Joh-Da-Graeme or Da-Joh-Graeme.  The only thing I asked was that Mum didn’t call me Lorna.   

2.         …Kenneth…

It’s a funny thing that my siblings and I all got “English” first names (Graeme is not as English as Graham, but it’s certainly not a traditional Scottish boys’ name).  Perhaps in compensation, we all got Scottish middle names (Ian, Margaret, Andrew, Kenneth).  Ian is the Gaelic version of John.  Scotland has had many famous Margarets, including Queen Margaret, who was canonized, and Mons Meg, which is a cannon.  Andrew is, of course, the patron saint of Scotland.  The name Kenneth also has an honored place in Scottish history.  According to legend, Kenneth MacAlpin was the first king of Alba, the land subsequently known as Scotland.

King Kenneth (Coinneach, in the Gaelic) was born in 810 C.E. on the Hebridean island of Iona, where Christianity had arrived in Scotland two and a half centuries earlier.  After uniting the western kingdom of Dal Riata with the eastern kingdom of Pictland, he established his capital at Scone (pronounced “skoon”), in central Scotland.  He brought with him a red-sandstone block of mysterious origins that became known as the Stone of Destiny.  Scottish kings were crowned sitting on it until 1296, when it was seized by King Edward I of England.  The “Hammer of the Scots” put the Stone of Destiny in Westminster Abbey, where it became part of the coronation chair.  Seven hundred years later, it was finally returned to Scotland and placed in Edinburgh Castle, where Mons Meg should deter any marauding English monarchs.

When I started to publish scientific papers, I used the name ‘Graeme K. Hunter’.  I included a middle initial to distinguish myself, for indexing purposes, from other Graeme Hunters.  One day a female colleague asked me: “What’s your middle name?”

I said:  “If I told you that Kenneth means ‘handsome’, what would you guess my middle name is?”

“Hmm … Kevin?”

But Kenneth does mean ‘handsome’.  Is that nominative determinism, or what?

3.         …Wyness…

Unlike my siblings, I got a second middle name.  My mum explained that Wyness was her maiden name.  But her full name was “May Baxter Hunter”, so wasn’t Baxter her maiden name?  Or what about Welsh, which was the surname of my maternal grandparents?  On the other hand, why did everyone call Mum “Winnie”?  Was that short for Wyness? 

I still hate being asked the security question “What is your mother’s maiden name?”  Whatever.  Pick a number.

It took a long time for me to learn the whole story.  My mother was born to a single mother, Ella Wyness, and named May.  When she was fostered by a family named Baxter, she was given their surname.  During the Second World War, May Baxter worked in a munitions factory.  There she made friends with Doreen Welsh, whose mum and dad became surrogate parents to my future mother.  May never had the surname Welsh, but I was brought up to believe that Doreen’s parents were my grandparents, so you can see how the confusion arose.

I don’t know why Mum decided to give me Wyness as an extra middle name.  Although it must have been obvious to her that, at age 36, this was probably her last kick of the can.  Unfortunately, I didn’t like the name Wyness.  I could claim that I already had enough problems, having to spell out Graeme all the time, and apparently not being handsome enough for a Kenneth.  But the fact is I just didn’t like the sound of Wyness (wino? whiniest?), and was uncomfortable being the only person I knew who had two middle names.  So at some point I just stopped using it.  As noted above, my moniker in the world of professional science was Graeme K. Hunter. 

The last vestige of Wyness in my life was my U.K. passport.  Three years ago I had to renew that document, and decided to ditch the dubya, which required convincing the Passport Office that I hadn’t actually used the name Wyness for a number of years.  That was fairly easy to do, since I’d gone W-less on my Canadian passport for a long time.  Now the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, like the Government of Canada, the Province of Ontario and the City of London, all know me as Graeme Kenneth Hunter.

And my mother didn’t live long enough to see the day when I finally dropped her (real) maiden name.

4.         …Hunter

Hunter isn’t as quintessentially Scottish a name as Macdonald or Stewart or Campbell (I included Stewart because, if you put a Macdonald and a Campbell together, they’ll get into a fight).  But there is a tartan.  Quite a nice one, too; I have a Hunter tartan tie that I wear on formal occasions. 

If there’s a tartan, there must be a clan.  The Hunters didn’t play a big part in Scottish history; they weren’t bold seafarers like the Macleods, fierce Highlanders like the Gordons or border reivers like the Douglases.  The name Hunter doesn’t even appear on many clan maps of Scotland.  But there is a place in Ayrshire called Hunterston, and that is indeed the ancestral seat of Clan Hunter.  There’s even a castle.

In August of 2009, David and I were driving to the seaside town of Largs to scatter the ashes of our late mother, May “Winnie” Wyness Baxter Hunter.  David remarked that he’d been hiking in this area and had come across signs for Hunterston Castle.  Since Mum wasn’t in a hurry, we decided to take a detour.  After a few false turns, we came across two stone pillars bearing the words ‘Hunterston Castle’.  We drove down the roadway marked by the pillars until we encountered a sign that said: “Strictly no admittance.  Clan Hunter business only.” 

OK, bit of a mixed message there.  On the one hand, “strictly no admittance” seemed clear.  On the other, were we there on “Clan Hunter business”?  Do you automatically become a member of the clan by virtue of having the last name Hunter, or do you have to join and pay a fee?  We decided to go on.  What’s the worst that could happen? 

The road ended at a large manor house.  No-one was around, so the obvious next move was to knock on the imposing oak door.  David pulled birth order and made me do that.  As he sat in the car, I took a deep breath, grasped the ancient cast-iron ring and knocked it three times against the ancient strike-plate. 

I expected the door to be opened by an ancient, wizened retainer dressed in a black Victorian frock-coat.  In fact it was a youngish man in casual clothing.

“Hi!” I said brightly.  “My brother and I were hoping to see the castle.”

“I’m afraid it’s not a good time, old chap” he replied in an English accent.  He’s the head of Clan Hunter and he’s English?  “Bit of a flap on at the moment.”

“We’re Hunters,” I added helpfully.

This seemed to do the trick.  “Look, I’ll give you the key,” the laird said.  “Just let yourselves in.” 

He disappeared inside, came back with a giant cast-iron key, and directed us to the castle.  We’d actually passed it on the way in, but it was hidden by trees – a square Norman tower, in good shape considering that it dates from the fourteenth century.  David and I unlocked the door and start wandering around our ancestral home.  Unable to figure out how to turn on the lights, we were dependent upon what little sunlight filtered through the narrow windows, but that only added to the atmosphere.  There were suits of armor, racks of medieval weapons, hunting trophies, a dining table and chairs with the Clan Hunter crest.  For half an hour, David and I were the lairds of Hunterston Castle.  (Well, he was, being older than me).

I’ve always liked the name Hunter; it has a rugged, outdoorsy connotation.  In her 2020 novel ‘The Mirror and the Light’, Hilary Mantel wrote: “Hunters, it is said, live longer than other men; they sweat hard and stay lean; when they fall into bed at night they are tired beyond all temptation; and when they die, they go to Heaven.”

Picture the scene: I show up at the Pearly Gates and there’s St. Peter.  He’s holding the naughty-and-nice list.

St. Peter:         “Name?”
Me:                  “Graeme Hunter.”
St. Peter:         “How do you spell that?”


Graeme Hunter is the author of ‘Vital Forces’ (Academic Press) and ‘Light Is a Messenger’ (Oxford University Press).  His personal and hybrid essays have appeared in Riddle Fence, Queen’s Quarterly and Talking Soup.  He publishes the blog Opera Through the Looking Glass.  For further information, see www.graemehunter.ca.

Sports of Sorts

by Thomas Backer

            After reading Pogo, Katzenjammer Kids and a few other comic strips in the newspaper, I turned to the sports page to check on the number of hits by Richie Ashburn and the new won/loss record of the Phillies pitcher.  They won the National League Championship in 1950 and my support at age eleven.  I could care less about anything else in the paper and neither did most of the adults and other kids in our small town.     

            The following summer mom and dad took brother Joe and me on vacation for the fifteen hour drive to Washington D.C. and a side trip to Philadelphia for a double header with Robin Roberts and Curt Simmons, their aces, pitching.  The immaculate field and the cavernous stadium put me in Oz.  The largest crowds I had seen up to that time were those that attended our annual church picnic for the turtle soup and taking chances on a quilt.  The roar and foot stomping of these baseball fans intimidated me at first but I soon started yelling and jumping up and down, losing some of my salted peanuts.  

            Dad pulled on my shoulder to sit me down.  “It’s only a baseball game, son.”

            I looked up.  “Oh dad, it’s much more than that.  It’s my best dream come true.”

            Other events of my childhood fade away but not that one.

            A couple of years after that game, Curt Simmons, a lefty, slipped and fell using his power mower, a newfangled machine he had recently purchased, severing several toes on his left foot.  He tried to pitch again but he couldn’t forcefully push off the mound with his injured left foot so he gave it up and the Phillies got off on the wrong foot too.  Brother Joe got my goat by gloating over the success of Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese and the rest of his Dodgers.  

            We played softball at recess and practiced fielding grounders and pitching baseball in our spare time, including “burn out,” where we threw the ball as hard as we could until one of us quit with a sore paw, but the first organized school sport we played was basketball.


            Our small town of Ferdinand did not have a high school or gym so we played against teams from other small towns at a gym belonging to a nearby Benedictine monastery.  Father Edwin, bland looking and speaking just above a whisper, coached our sixth grade team.  We called him Sleepy Jesus because he often fell asleep during the silent reading portion of our religion class.   We played roughhouse basketball like in games after school: fouling the other team, pushing to get a rebound, always grabbing for the ball.  During our first game against another school, Father Edwin called us into a huddle.  Leaning over, hands held together in prayer, he had us do the same and pleaded, “For the love of the Lord, behave yourselves.  The object of this game is to put the ball in the basket.”  Well, to make a basket you have to first get the ball and the only way to do that was to fight for it.

            The following year our crew cut, athletically looking seventh grade coach appropriately called Crapper, had us always walk on the balls of our feet.  He overheard some of us having an animated conversation in his Volkswagen van on the way home from a game.  At a stop sign, he turned to ask, “You boys talking about girls?”

            I said, “Yeah, I think Peggy Brockman is the best looking girl in our class.” 

            Another player snorted.  “Whoop de doo, Bonnie Schaefer has her beat six ways from Sunday.  Blue eyes, curly hair, what more could you want?”

            Crapper smiled a wicked smile.  “They all look the same underneath.”  He turned to continue driving.  

            Did he mean that looks don’t matter?  Wholesomeness counts more than looks?  Or did he mean girls with no clothes on?  Seemed like a sin to even think about that but scuttlebutt had it that sin didn’t seem to be a subject that Crapper concerned himself with.   Our pastor, Father David, his round florid face looking stern, called each of us boys one by one to his office at the rectory before our seventh grade Confirmation.  He supposedly tried to explain sex but in such vague terms that he seemed to mainly say that I should consider the priesthood.  If Crapper, full of it as usual, had commented on sex in his naughty way, Father David’s discombobulated discourse ranked as only the second time any adult had ever said anything about the subject.  We had begun noticing girls but not in terms of sex, which became this tantalizing but never talked about topic except by older boys who made it clear that we didn’t know our ass from a hole in the ground.

            Ferdinand finally got a high school in 1950, with me still in seventh grade.  They enrolled only freshmen and sophomores to start with but our basketball team played against varsity teams from other small towns in the area.   

            The Frank Heidet Machine Shop distributed a calendar for that year listing our town‘s population as 2000.  They must have included cats and dogs because the official census said 1,252.  Our population still outnumbered the residents of the towns we played but their juniors and seniors stomped on our young team without mercy.  Selvin lost its post office earlier that year of 1950 but their Netters defeated us 80 to 24.  The U.S. census did not list a population for Otwell until 2010 and that as 434, declining to 396 in 2020, but their Millers beat us 68 to 29.   The Bluebirds of Birdseye, which even today has only one intersection and trailers vastly outnumbering houses in the area, won the final game of the season 70 to 20. 

            Our guys did, however, come close to winning against the Folsomville Fearless.  

            On the school bus going with other students to the game, I joined in yelling “Goodnight Irene Goodnight,” “Peg o’ My Heart “ and “Ninety-nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall.”  At bottle number forty-seven, the bus driver pulled over, stood and turned to face us with murder in his eyes.  “If y’all can’t keep a lid on I’m goin to turn this damned thing around and you can forget about me drivin you to any more games and not nobody else is dumb enough do it neither.”  

            Since he resembled the old time comedian, I said during the hush, “Okay, Fatty Arbuckle, drive on, take away anything you want but not our basketball games.”  He gave me an index finger and a piercing look but turned and held down on the horn as he got back on the road.  He eventually pulled into a lane with a farmhouse and large barn.  That seemed odd but we entered the barn to see a basketball court only a little more than half the size of a normal one.  Eight rows of seats lined the one side of the “gym” with a pot-bellied stove that smelled like puke beneath the visitor’s section.  Probably one of the Fearless did that deliberately earlier in the day.

            Our star player, Leon Wenholt, used a one handed pump shortly after crossing the center line but it hit the ceiling, twenty-five feet above the floor, each time.  A referee called it out of bounds and gave the ball to the other team.  We yelled, “What!  How much are they paying you?” and similar appropriate remarks but the referee gave us a threatening look, as if he might call a technical foul on us, so we kept our cussing quiet for the time being.

            Our three girl cheerleaders ran onto the playing field during the first break in the action, wearing saddle oxford shoes, bobby socks and pleated short skirts as they jumped about, shaking their blue and gold pompoms and yelling out their theme song:

                        We are the Crusade girls

                        You’ll like our hair in curls.

                        We wear our dungarees 

                        Away above our knees

             The playing field ended two feet from the wall at the side of the gym opposite the bleachers.  At the start of the game, a student brought out a stepladder and the scorekeeper mounted it to sit on a small ledge ten feet above the floor.  He then marked the score with chalk and an eraser on a small blackboard.  At halftime the student brought the ladder for him and he got down to get a bag of popcorn he brought to the game.  He got back up on the ledge when play resumed but an errant ball headed his way, causing him to throw up his hands, along with the chalk, eraser and his popcorn.  The custodian tossed him the chalk and erasure, swept up the popcorn and headed for the trashcan.  The scorekeeper yelled, “Give that back!  The floor’s clean.”  The custodian turned to glare at him and, arms akimbo while holding the dustpan, gave him a I-may-look-like-a–fool-but-you’re-a-worse-one and tossed the popcorn in the trashcan.  The irate scorekeeper called for the ladder, got down and stomped off, thumbing his nose at the custodian.  They coaxed a younger kid to take his place and he seemed to mount the ladder with a certain amount of trepidation. 

            All of the fans, and especially ours, filled the small space with a deafening roar, constantly booing the referees with insinuating epitaphs such as, “You’re so crooked they’re going to have to use a corkscrew to get you into your grave!”

            The sports writer for the Ferdinand News described the rough and tumble of the game.  “Nearly all foul ball plays ended up on the floor and the game was not unlike a football meet.  The players couldn’t get out of each other’s way and, before the game was over, the referees called a total of 47 fouls, sending five players to the showers.”  The referees always called the foul on the defensive player, never charging on the offense, except when there occurred an oddity that has probably never happened elsewhere.  The sports writer continued, “Near the end of the game, one referee finally caught a boy charging but the other referee called it a foul on the boy in his way, so each was given a free throw and each charged with a personal foul.” 

            The sports writer summarized the game as a “heartbreaker” since Folsomville squeaked by with a score of 39 to 37, the only game our Crusaders lost by less than twenty points. 

            They offered no concessions but a hand printed sign said, “Stop at Mr. Leslie’s Grocery Store after the game for a cracker and slice of baloney sandwich for five cents and a Coke for ten cents.  Look for the U. S. Post Office sign as it is located in the back of the store.”  People in the area called Folsomville “Lick Skillet.”  At least we didn’t have to do that to get a snack. 

            Ferdinand got a gym two years later and I sat on the bench as a freshman but had high hopes that, with practice, I could gain a starting position.  Too cold to play outside, my fellow benchwarmers and I wanted access to the gym and thought that the janitor or somebody would let us in.  We banged on the doors and windows without success but then I noticed an unlocked window just under the roof near a downspout so I climbed the twenty feet to push the window open and squeezed inside to then let the others in at a front door.  

            Father David, the pastor who found out about everything, called home the next day to tell mom of my reckless behavior.  Mom put her hands to her sides and gave me a discouraged look.  “Father said breaking and entering is a felony but for my sake he isn’t going to press charges.  Why would you do something like that?  Basketball isn’t the most important thing in the world.”

            “It isn’t?”


            I didn’t try out for the basketball team the next year and turned my attention to baseball.  I served as batboy for our hometown Cardinals, who played teams from the area.  We especially wanted them to beat Jasper, a much larger town whose fans called us the Ferdinand Twinkies.  We hated their guts.  Having pitched ten scoreless innings, Nig Schriener, called that because of his dark complexion, knelt on one knee in the on-deck circle.  In his mid-forties and his last season, he looked plum tuckered as he leaned on the upright bat.  He spit tobacco juice in the direction of their pitcher.  “I’m tired of looking at that ugly bastard.”  He pointed his bat to center field and hit a home run to win the game.  Babe Ruth had nothing on this guy.

            Making the baseball team during my junior year in high school I sat on the bench but did get to play the day after the prom.  Most of us junior guys from town, a few country jacks and a bunch of seniors had an after the prom party at the St. Meinrad Conservation Club, just an open concrete building with a roof.  Two seniors had asked older brothers to get us three cases of beer and four guys agreed to drink only three each so they could get the rest of us home.  A few girls showed up but left early.  

            Several guys who had starting positions on the baseball team called in sick the next morning so the rest of us had to fill in at those positions for our game against the Cannelton Bulldogs.  Blurry eyed and weaving a bit, we looked forward to the last out that would end our misery.  We had only eight players so Dickie Lee, the water boy, had to play right field.  He had to borrow a glove from the other team and let one through his legs but managed to not fall down as he ran after it. 

            The next morning, Sister Therese, our homeroom teacher, stood to the side of the room, looking down, arms folded in front of her and not saying a word.   Sister Frederica, the principal, burst into the room and slammed her hand on the teacher’s desk.  “This is a Catholic school you ingrates.  No senior prom for you.  I don’t like to punish the girls as well as the boys but I know that some of you girls attended this disgraceful and disgusting affair and the innocent will have to suffer along with the guilty.”  She pointed her right index finger across the lot of us.  “Father Bede will hear confessions at the end of the day and all of you miscreants will admit your degree of guilt in this sordid sin.”  She slammed the door as she left.

            So what, I thought.  She can flush her prom down the toilet for all we cared.  Just don’t take away baseball. 

            In our senior year I started at third base.  During that year I sometimes got on base due to walks as I scrunched my small size over the plate to shrink the strike zone and the other team made errors but I got only one hit.  Joe Todrank pitched for the Holland Dutchmen.  At the end of an inning, as I walked to the dugout, he strolled to the mound, cocky as ever, and said, “You’re Larry’s brother, aren’t you?”  I gave him a quizzical look but nodded.  “You’re up.  Take the first pitch.  It’ll be a nice one.”  Right down the middle at medium speed, I hit it into shallow center field.  Felt pretty good standing on first base as my teammates cheered in amazement.  I didn’t advance to second base and none of the rest of us even got to first as Todrank could smoke em and even threw a nasty curve.

            In another game, the Dale Golden Aces had an exceptionally good player named Reinhardt, hard as nails.  During one at bat Reinhardt blasted a screaming line drive at me.  As I walked in at the end of the inning and coach LaGrange jauntily strolled to his position as third base coach, he smiled and winked. “ You’re not supposed to duck when they hit a ball at you.”   Yeah, sure, stand still and get a big hole in my head.


            A classmate told me that when he went on his honeymoon he took his bride to eleven major league games in ten days, traveling from city to city in the Midwest and along the East Coast.  Perhaps she took knitting with her, but when they got back home, she said, “I will never go to another Major League game the rest of my married life, which may not last very long at the rate we’re going.  Baseball isn’t the most important thing in the world.”

            He said, “It isn’t?”  


Tom Backer had fun growing up in the small town of Ferdinand, Indiana.  After obtaining a PhD in History at the University of Cincinnati, he taught that subject for 43 years, mainly at a college prep high school but including two years at the International School of Kenya.  Upon retirement he took classes in Creative Writing at Northern Kentucky University and, with encouragement from Blaise Weller, he began submitting.  The Barker’s Voice published a poem called Cheezee, describing a horseshoe game and a theft of cheese.  Two fiction stories appeared:  “Goodwill” in aaduna describes an unsuccessful attempt to help two homeless people and openarstsforum listed “A Small Town” where hijinks in a bar led to an accusation of witchcraft.  Creative Nonfiction stories include two in aaduna: “Fear,” about a carjacking in Los Angeles, and “Slick,” describing teenagers on the loose.  Wilderness House Literary Review also presented two: “The Elephant Trap,” where his brother and he played a trick on Grandpa and got punished, and “Carly: a Christmas Carol,” describing the loss of his local boyhood hero.  Sortes Magazine published “The Circus,” where he and other kids put on a circus in his backyard.

Mailable Motorcycle Art:
Two-Wheeled Postcards from Around the World

Story & Photos by Paul Garson

Redlands, California 1900

Postcards were utilized as means of advertising more than a hundred years ago as demonstrated by his example printed by a California shop offering both bicycles and motorcycles.

Before there was Twitter and text messaging there were postcards. Tons of them. In fact, many millions have been posted from almost every country in the world, the appearance of postcards stretching back more than 150 years. While there’s no special term for collecting motorcycles, postcard collecting and their research has one… Deltiology. And at last count it happens to be the third largest collecting hobby in the world, next to coin and stamp collecting.

Naturally when you have postcards you have the postal stamp. The first, known as the Penny Black, was printed by England in 1840 while privately produced postcards that included images first appeared in Austria in 1869 and the die was cast, the phenomena of illustrated postcard skyrocketing in popularity around the world. The first colored postcard was introduced in 1889 while images of the newly erected Eiffel Tower helped to greatly expand interest in postcards. The first cards showing real photographs began appearing in 1900.

In 1906 postcards benefited from another boost with the appearance of the Eastman Kodak foldable camera, amateur photographing booming and the resulting images transferable to postcards. In 1908 the U.S. population was listed at 88,700,000. In that same year, some 678,000,000 postcards were mailed within and from America. The era was called the Golden Age of postcards, but that all faded  a bit with the advent and spread of the telephone as a means of rapid communication, but then the introduction of color postcards bumped it back up. The advent of the Internet and today’s electronic cards have had an impact, but postcards, recognized as an art form unto itself, still remain popular, especially with collectors who have nearly 150 years of postcards to choose from and a bunch of them motorcycle related including the following.

As a motorcyclist of some 40 years, I focused on postcards with images that spoke (or bespoked) to me over the years, some of which follow…no stamps needed.

1908Embossed Postcard – Made in Germany – Mailed in the U.S.

This special embossed color postcard was postmarked from Cuba, Missouri at 5:00 PM Sept. 7, 1908 by a person who signed her name Jannine to a Miss Edith Barker of Millers Falls, Massachusetts. The depiction of a wicker sidecar is accurate as many similar “chairs” were built to carry family and cargo. As for the “P F” on the gas tank, no reference could be found to link it to a real motorcycle made in Germany or the U.S. and its may the initials of the artist. The card itself was apparently printed in several different languages and sold internationally.

1910 – 86, 414 British bike riders have registered their machines. By this year 31 U.S. motorcycle companies are in still in production, although several have fallen by the wayside

1913 – Bike registrations in England have jumped to 180,000, nearly a 100,000 added in the previous three years.

 1914 – WWI French Postcard – “Missed!”

The caption in both French and English relates to a motorcycle courier outrunning

German sentry’s rifle shots as he speeds on his mission through enemy lines. The artist’s name is listed…de Carrey apparently excerpted from another work titled “The Mirror.”     

France is rich with its own motorcycle history with literally hundreds of manufacturers, most of whom have come and gone, but many leaving exceptional machines.  One famous mark was the Gnome et Rhône originally known for their aircraft engines. During WWI, some 100,00 of their 9-cylinder Delta and Le Rhône 110 hp rotary designs powering the majority of all aircraft in the early years of the war.  Even larger engines powered WWII aircraft. In 1920 they introduced their first motorcycle, the Gnome et Rhône 500 cc while various other models were produced up to the early 1950s,

World War One French Postcard – On Leave a Soldier delivers flowers to his ladyfriend via his Rene Gillet. Tank on rear may be extra fuel or gas for the headlamp.  The R G’s first appeared 1897, V-twins by 1904, eventually the side-valve 750 and 1000cc machines popular with the French army.   

1915 – WWI U.S. Army Motorcycle Sidecar Mounted Machinegun Trooper

While the iconic Harley-Davidson first appeared in 1903, the company began supplying the U.S. military in 1915, it solo mount and sidecar machines gaining experience during 1916 when some 20,000 U.S. troops under the command of  General John “Black Jack” Pershing were granted permission by the Mexican government to enter their country in pursuit of the bandit/revolutionary Pancho Villa. While they never caught up with him, even with their Harley and Indian motorcycles that could go where heavier vehicles could not, the American army learned valuable lessons including those concerning the new “Motor Mobile Infantry” and “Mounted Infantry.” Oddly enough their quarry, Pancho Villa, was an avid motorcyclist himself, preferring the Indian.

1915 – U.S. motorcycle registrations had skyrocket to an estimated 180,000. But by the 1932, of over 300 total original builders, only two will have survived: Indian and Harley-Davidson.

1917 – “Motor Cycle Scouts in Action”

The colorized postcard dated Dec. 6, 1917 was sent from Greenville, South Carolina, site of a U.S. military training camp. While the driver of the sidecar rig ducks for cover, the rifleman aims his Springfield carbine at some imaginary enemy for this posed photo.


When the U.S. finally entered the war in 1917, Indian gave its entire production to the military, almost bankrupting itself, selling them at cost and leaving civilian showrooms bare. Harley took a different strategy, providing 50% of its production, the rest going to the public. The Harleys, powered by 1000cc v-twin engines produced 15hp. The factory prospered, many bikes also going to the Dutch and Russian military including gun and stretcher carrying models.  Harley-Davidson supplied about one third of the 70,000 machines ordered by the U.S. military, the remaining two-thirds divided between Indian and Cleveland.  Of the 26,486 Harleys bought by the U.S., some 7,000 going to England and France where they served as convoy escorts, dispatch, scouting and reconnaissance vehicles.

Henderson Four Goes Hill-Climbing – Original Photo Postcard – Apparently a Model F circa 1913-17

Three Up on a 1927 Böhmerland Attire – Original Czech Postcard

Various models of the Böhmerland were built from 1934 until 1939 in Czechoslovakia. So where did it get its “styling” cues? Well, literally out of thin Czech air. Seems the builder, one Albin Hugo Leibisch started with a clean sheet to draw up his vision of the ultimate road bike, one that could carry up to four passengers. Rear “rockets” actually house the fuel. The 37 cubic inch engine specs include bore and stroke of 78 mm × 120 mm (3.1 in × 4.7 in.), good enough to pump out 16-20 HP.

While our side of Iron Curtain called it the Böhmerlander (Böhme related to the name of Bohemia, part of then Czechoslovakia), back in its home country it was known as the Cechie. The factory was located in the Czech city of Krasna Lipa aka known as Schonlinde since it was in German speaking area of the country “absorbed” in October 1938 by Germany. Some 3,000 bikes were built, however few surviving to the present.

1940 – Finland – Love at First Bike

A rider appears well-attired for motorcycling complete with goggles, gloves and helmet although his passenger sits in a less secure side-saddle position minus any protective gear.  The colorized postcard was dated June 7, 1940 and sent from the city of Turku, the oldest settlement in Finland, and located in southwest coast of country at the mouth of the Aura River. In 1996 Turku was declared the official Christmas City of Finland, then designated the European Capital of Culture for 2011.

Only a couple motorcycle references to Finnish motorcycles could be found and one happened to be made in none other than Turku, the company being Tunturi, its history beginning in 1922 and leading to successful bicycle production. In the 1950s the Tunturi led the Finnish domestic market leader in mopeds. They are best known in foreign markets for their range of physical fitness equipment development including stationary bicycles now sold in 40 countries.

The other Finnish manufacturer was Helkama Oy best known for its bicycles (Helkama Velox), and also for umbrellas, cables for ships and communications, household appliances and some car parts. During the 1970s and 1980s a Helkama trial bike won several trial races. The company also made several mopeds that were very popular in Sweden until production ceased in the 1990s.


1941 – U.S. – Harley-Davidson and Thompson .45 Machinegun

As early as 1937 the U.S. military visited the Harley-Davidson factory intent on finding a suitable motorcycle for the war they saw as inevitable. Toward that end the Milwaukee company sent the head of its factory service school on a cross country tour of every Army camp east of the Mississippi, logging 200,000 miles on his Harley EL “Knucklehead.”

By 1939, the Army had compared various Harleys and Indians as well as a BMW clone produced by the Delco Corporation. It chose Harley-Davidson, but required that it could reach 65 mph, be able to ford streams 16 inches deep and not overheat at slow speeds slogging through muddy fields.


1953 – England – Triumph Thunderbird 650cc – “The Best Motorcycle in the World” An illustration from the Triumph factory’s 1953 catalog appears on a commercial postcard.

The previous 500cc vertical twin Triumph powerplant was bored out to 650cc to appeal to the power hungry American market. Designated as the 6T Thunderbird, the name conjured up the Triumph’s stellar engineer Edward Turner during a visit to the U.S.  The new model was debuted in Paris at the Monthery racecourse where three factory riders average 92mph over 500 miles after the riders had ridden from the factory in England to the track and then back again, providing some high profile press for the new machines which was further enhanced when Marlon Brando rode a 1950 Thunderbird in the “The Wild One” in 1953, although the conservative owners of Triumph officially objected to their machine appearing in a rowdy biker movie. However they did not complain about the big jump in Triumph sales that followed the release of the film. The last Thunderbirds were made for English consumption in 1966 by which time the even more famous Bonneville had taken center stage.

1961 – England – Norton Manxman – Mayfair Cards of London – Courtesy of Norton Motors, Ltd.

The caption on the reverse of the card reads: “Every feature of the 1961 Norton was a direct development of Grand Prix racing. It was the know-how gained from winning races all over the world which gives a Norton bike race-bred performance which is second to none. By 1961 the Norton had won 32 T.T. races.”

The Manxman derived its name from the famous Isle of Mann race course, the island also home to the famous tail-less Manx cat. Norton also built the famous Manx single cylinder racers that earned the company so many victories. On November 7, 1960 the first new 650cc Norton Manxman with the vaunted Featherbed frame was launched for the American market only. It was later followed by the larger displacement 750cc Norton Atlas in April 1962 because of the American market demand for more power. However the Atlas proved too expensive to build, profits meager and the cause of growing financial problems for the company. Fortunately in 1968 the new Commando appeared to save the day, at least temporarily.

1970s – U.S. – “The Coke Machine”

An example of a limited production privately produced postcard shows the creation of Angela Johnston and David Cargill of Des Moines, Iowa. The 1948 Harley-Davidson Panhead’s 74 cu. in. motor was pumped up to run the quarter mile in 12.09 seconds at 120 mph. The caption on the reverse reads, “A metal sculpture. A kinetic array of Coca-Cola nostalgia. A collage of advertising. Certainly, things go better aboard a customized Harley.”



Paul Garson is an American writer and photographer who lives and writes in Los Angeles in a small apartment with an old rug and a loyal cat. He has written nonfiction articles—many with his own photography—for over 70 US and international publications as well as written a dozen nonfiction books. He has high hopes of being a space tourist or at least getting to Iceland before it turns into Hawaii.

Forged for Strength

By Jean McDonough

I take knives seriously. My collection is crafted by a German manufacturer that has forged blades since the early 1800’s. I know how to identify a high-quality knife, as well its specific function—carving, chopping, slicing, peeling, cleaving, cutting, or deboning—based on the size and shape of the blade. Good knives are crafted in a complex forging process where a metal alloy—ideally both carbon steel for ease of sharpening and stainless steel for durability—are melted and poured into forms. Forged knives are far superior in strength and durability than knives stamped out of thin sheets of metal.

I like the feel of a forged knife. It follows the contours of my hand and is smooth in my grip. Quality forged knives have a bolster—a band of metal in the center of the blade—where my thumb can rest above and my knuckles behind it. A bolster in the center of a knife not only offers the blade better balance, it also protects me from injuring myself when I am cutting apart the legs, wings, and breasts of a chicken for roasting.

In the dark background of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, the masterpiece that memorializes Basques killed during the Spanish Civil War bombing of Gernika, there is a bird. It stands awkwardly on a wooden table between the defiant bull and a wounded horse. While birds usually symbolize freedom, this particular bird—what most critics claim is a dove of peace or even the Holy Spirit rising above a war-torn field—is trapped. It raises its head in anguish and one of its wings, likely broken, hangs down at an odd angle. I also want to see a dove. I want to believe that peace will someday overcome my own dark hours of self-hatred, but to me the bird in Guernica seems like nothing more than a lowly form of poultry, perhaps a chicken produced for mass consumption despite no comb on the top of its head or fleshy wattles hanging under its neck. There are several differences between the bird in Guernica and a dove. Both the neck and the crudely drawn legs of the bird are longer and more pronounced than those of a dove. Dove tails also tend to have tapered points while the bird’s tail in Guernica has a small plume of feathers similar to that of chicken.

What is even more convincing that the bird is a chicken, however, is the context in which it appears in Picasso’s painting; the bird—it is certainly very ugly and unrefined—stands on a table, its beak stretched toward heaven as it waits to be slaughtered. There is a searing white line—what looks like a sharp knife—that cuts across the base of the bird’s neck. The bird is about to die and no one seems to care. Like some primitive petroglyph on a cave wall, the bird recedes into the dark background of history and is forgotten, while the horse writhing in the dust and the soldier staring up at heaven are seared into the memory of those who witness Guernica. The women of the painting who are also immortalized, one fallen out the window of a burning building and the other fleeing her bombed city moments before she is struck in the back by bullets. Then, of course, there is the unmistakable agony of the weeping mother holding her dead child. Who can forget her breasts twisted into missiles or her mouth ripped into a scream? The weeping woman will be forever remembered as the pietà, the mother of God with her sacrificed Christ child, while the terror-stricken bird in the background of Picasso’s Guernica will be left to die alone.

Nobody cares about chickens.

Sometimes my thoughts are elsewhere when I am using a knife to cut off the legs, wings, and breasts of a bird I am preparing for a meal. Sometimes at the end of a long day, I concentrate more on what I have always struggled to keep alive, something so ephemeral as an endless blue expanse of possibility deep inside me. Emily Dickenson once referred to it in a different way when she said, “Hope is the thing with feathers / That perches in the soul.” Perhaps Dickenson’s definition of hope is too sentimental and naive—worn to a cliché by the modern tendency toward cynicism—but when I am cutting off the wings of a bird, I sometimes look for this small, feathery thing inside me. Usually, though, I am too caught up in the dark things of my “chillest land” and “strangest sea,” those aspects of myself that limit my endless blue expanse: anger and sadness, an alienating sense of otherness, self-judgment, and then—most shameful—an inability to truly love. How have I hated others? How have I hated myself? My knife slips on the wet, rubbery skin of the dead bird that I am handling, and—despite the forged strength of the metal, the weight of my full tang blade, and the centuries-old reputation of my German manufacturer—

I cut myself. When this happens, I usually slice open the tip of my thumb. There is always that searing shock—a bright white silence before pain—and then blood lets out from under the pale flap of my skin.

Someone once asked me a strange question.

How do you know that you have a heart?

Because I never have actually seen my heart, I was unsure how to respond. Even though my heart is a bodily organ that supposedly keeps me alive, beating 4,800 times an hour and pumping 2,000 gallons of blood every single day, the only way I can actually verify that I have a heart is because I have been told this by experts in the field of medicine. These same experts claim that my heart is the size of my fist and that it can actually break, caused not only by disease—as one might suspect—but stress. It is true, though, that I do have anecdotal evidence my heart really does exist. Sometimes I feel like I have a heart when I cut myself and the blood lets out. Sometimes I feel like I have a heart when I am startled awake in the middle of the night and something with wings beats hard and fast inside of me. Something in the middle of the night pounds in my chest. It will not let me sleep and I am unable to set it free from my body. Without actually seeing my heart, though, I suppose there is always a small possibility that what I believe is not actually true. Maybe I don’t really have a heart after all.

Certainly there are many types of internal struggle that are sometimes expressed in unusual ways such as midnight panic attacks, obsessions and fixations, dissociations or feelings that the world is not real, and even self-mutilation as a coping tool to release unbearable tension. Those of us who have endured any sort of high school literature class can probably identify a long list of internal conflicts that might result in such symptoms. Some are moral in nature, others are sexual, existential, interpersonal, religious, or political in origin. While civil war is not normally considered an internal conflict, at least not in the context of literature, it is still a conflict that takes place in a particular body—the country in which one lives—with all its systems and structures that are similar to a living organism.

There is an ancient metaphor of political thought called body politic where the state is conceived as a biological—usually human—body, though the use of it has declined since the Middle Ages when the authority of both the monarchies and the church were challenged. One of the earliest and best known examples of the body politic metaphor appears in the fable The Belly and the Members, attributed to the ancient Greek writer Aesop. In this fable, the other members of the body revolt against the belly which they think is doing none of the work while getting all the food. The hands, mouth, teeth and legs initiate a strike, but then when they grow weak from hunger, they realize that cooperation with all the body members is vital for a healthy existence. In the fourth century BCE, Plato further articulated this political metaphor in the Republic and Laws, emphasizing fitness and well-being over the illness that occurs when different parts of a political body fail to perform the functions that are expected of them.

It is not without reason, then—if one is to follow the logic of Aesop’s comparison—for the country in which one lives and breathes to be considered a living organism. Civil war might also be understood, through extension, to be the internal struggle of a body set on destroying itself until there is a reconciliation of conflicting desires. There is perhaps no better example of this type of struggle than the bombing of Gernika during the Spanish Civil War, the event that inspired Pablo Picasso to create Guernica. During a three-hour German aerial attack that was sanctioned by the soon-to-be dictator General Francisco Franco, Gernika was leveled to the ground with anywhere between thirty-one and forty-six tons of incendiary bombs. The bombing was later internationally condemned as one of the first aerial attacks against innocent civilians. Approximately 270 or 85% of all the buildings in Gernika were destroyed. Fires from the incendiary bombs were not extinguished until two day later and the scope of the destruction of the city was so massive that it is still unclear how many people died. George Steer, a British journalist who witnessed the bombing, estimated that at least eight hundred people had been killed, though this amount does not consider those who were either buried in debris or incinerated in the bomb blasts. The estimate also does not take into account those victims who were visiting on market day nor those who later died of their injuries. Further complicating an accurate assessment of those who died as a result of the bombing, General Francisco Franco and the Nationalists, publicly downplayed the number of casualties, even suggesting that Basques had set their own city on fire, an outrageous claim of collective suicide.

Suicide—the attack and killing of one’s own body—might also be considered a variation of civil war if the body politic metaphor can be considered reciprocal and then reversed; if a political state can be considered a living body, then perhaps a living body can be understood in terms normally associated with a political state. In 1963, the American poet Sylvia Plath—overcome by her husband abandoning her for another woman, sickened with the flu, and filled with despair during a dark London winter—jammed towels and rags under the door of her kitchen to protect her small children who slept in another room, turned on the gas in her oven, laid her head inside, and killed herself with carbon monoxide poisoning.

Months earlier, Sylvia Plath had written a poem titled Cut that describes a time she injured herself with a knife while slicing an onion. Initially awakened by the cut—“What a thrill”—Plath later parallels the pain of her injury with images related to historical periods of American war and conflict. Her psychological turmoil is reflected in European and Native Americans conflicts, as well as the phrase “A million soldiers run, / Redcoats every one,” referring to the red uniforms of British soldiers during the American Revolutionary War. She also admonishes the Ku Klux Klan for their hate killings that result in a bloody “stain on your gauze,” perhaps the common principle of equality that weaves together a range of diverse people in the United States of America. Plath then goes on to confront her own “Redcoat” blood cells that have seemingly fled her body: “Whose side are they on?” she demands. While these phrases suggest an internal struggle, a kind of civil war within herself reflected in the United States’ continual fight for freedom and equality within its own borders, Plath’s mind has become so emotionally detached, so cut off from her own physical body, that she can only view it as an enemy.

Plath’s internal conflict parallels the conflict between countries during that particular time in history. Her poem Cut was written during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October, 1962, when for nearly two weeks during the John F. Kennedy administration, the world seemed on the brink of nuclear war after an American U-2 spy plane discovered that the Soviet Union was building nuclear bombs in Cuba. The self-inflicted cut on Plath’s finger seems to allude to a world grown progressively more violent. It may also reflect the turmoil of her own internal landscape.

Cutting up a bird with a forged knife should be a pleasure. High-quality knives are crafted to glide through flesh with both ease and precision. Before I can even begin cutting up a chicken or turkey with my knife, however, the animal must first be raised, slaughtered, and then delivered to a butcher shop, or—in our era of modern convenience that is so disassociated with death—a grocery store chain with bright refrigerated display cases of shrink-wrapped animal parts. Much has been said about the slaughtering of poultry for mass consumption and none of it is pleasant. While there have been efforts in recent years to more humanely grow and slaughter an estimated nine billion chickens every year in the United States, they are often raised in darkness and small cages. The birds are forced to gain weight so quickly that their growing hearts and skeletal systems cannot keep up with the accelerating size of their bodies, often resulting in congestive heart failure and physical deformities at only six or seven weeks of age. When their excretions are not removed from their cages, they sometimes go blind from the ammonia fumes that burn their eyes. Under these extreme and stressful conditions, the birds are often debeaked so that they cannot peck each other to death.

Once the birds reach their desired slaughter weight, they are taken off food and water in order to empty their digestive tracts and reduce the potential for contamination. In the middle of the night they are captured, loaded onto trucks and sent to processing facilities where it is common for eight thousand to fourteen thousand birds to be killed per hour with a high degree of automation. The live birds are transferred to a track of continuously moving shackles where they are hung upside down by their legs. They are then sent through an electrified water bath that stuns them before they are slaughtered, either by hand or by a mechanical rotary knife that cuts the jugular vein and the carotid arteries in the neck. If one of the birds manages to escape death in this automated process, a facility worker quickly kills it by hand with a knife. The birds are allowed to bleed out for approximately ninety seconds, depending on the size and species. Then they are sent through a scalding bath that removes their feathers.

One of the final steps of poultry processing is evisceration where all internal organs and entrails are removed from inside the bird. In order to do this, the preen gland at the base of the tail must first be cut out of the body. This procedure opens up a slit in the bird that is used to pull out organs such as the heart. The removal of internal organs can be done by hand, but is usually performed by automated devices that can cut out the organs of about seventy birds per minute. Internal organs and entrails are inspected and separated. The edible organs—also known as offal—include the bloody heart, kidney, gizzard, and liver. They are removed from all the other inedible organs. Stomachs are sliced open and their contents, along with the yellow lining, are removed. The lungs of the bird are separated from other visceral organs with a vacuum pipe. When the internal edible organs pass inspection, they are often packaged and reinserted back into the cavities of large birds sold for consumption.

Before placing a bird in the oven for roasting, I wash and dry it in order to avoid bacterial contamination. Then I remove the neck and giblets from inside the cavity of the bird. Giblets are all the edible organs. They include the heart, liver, gizzard, and sometimes the kidneys. Most people do not know that a gizzard is an organ that aids digestion. Poultry swallow a large amount of small stones and grit when they graze. These stones remain in the gizzard, grinding against each other to help birds digest their food.

The neck and giblets of large poultry are usually shrink-wrapped together for easy removal. In the particular bird that I am preparing, though, the neck is separate from the packaged giblets, so this is what I reach for first inside the hollow carcass. The neck seems strangely displaced, as if the entire bird had been turned inside out. When I pull it out of the body and hold it in my hand, I pause for a moment. It is long, muscular, and slightly curved. This peculiar neck, with its thin, bluish-pink skin still firm to my touch, is a faintly familiar appendage—oddly sexual—like something I once enjoyed long ago, but now struggle to even identify. Because I have no use for it now—neither a comforting stock nor sensual jus to flavor—I toss the severed piece in the trash.

While the gizzard of the bird seems so foreign and I am uncomfortable with the neck in my hand—it both titilates and embarasseses me—the heart is what I really want to see. When I pull it out of the vacuum-packed plastic storage bag tucked deep inside the cavity, I realize it is what I would expect of my own heart: small and muscular, deep red in color and slightly narrow on one end. It fits neatly in the palm of my hand and I am light-headed; there is a strong metallic smell that I recognize from my own dried blood. The heart, though, might not even be from this particular bird; in poultry processing facilities, the body parts get mixed up during slaughtering.

There is a story of King Soloman who ruled over a conflict between two women living together in one household. They both claimed that the same baby was their own flesh and blood. In order to determine the real mother, Solomon asked for a sword and ordered that the infant be cut in half so that each woman could have part of him. One of the women, who was not the real mother of the child, agreed to the judgment of the king. If she could not have the child, she did not want anyone else to have him, either. In a great act of selfless love, the second woman begged Solomon not to kill the infant. Instead, she asked that the king give him to the first woman. In this way, Solomon determined that the real mother was the second woman, the one willing to sacrifice her life with her child in order to save him from certain death. The king then ordered that the sword be removed and the baby returned to his real mother who was filled with joy. There is no story in the Bible, though, of a mother not wanting her own child.

Mothers always want their children.

During the violence of the Spanish Civil War, thousands of desperate mothers in Bilbao—their husbands sent off to fight during the conflict—entrusted their children to the care of strangers in a foreign country. Bilbao, a port city on the northeastern coast of Spain in the Basque Country, bustled with steel mills, shipbuilding, and maritime trade. Because it exported large quantities of goods and natural resources to other parts of Spain, one might have even referred to Bilbao as the belly in Aesop’s fable. In the spring of 1937, only a few weeks after the destruction of Gernika, Basques continued to endure aerial bombing and machine gun strafing by German and Italian air forces that were sanctioned by General Francisco Franco, who had led the Nationalist’s revolt against the legitimate democratic government. In addition to aerial attacks, the Nationalists set up a naval blockade of Bilbao, restricting ships from entering the port. With the added pressure of infantry steadily advancing from the south to push back the Iron Ring, a defense network of Republican fortifications surrounding Bilbao, food deliveries were unable to reach the city by either sea or land. Franco’s goal was to starve Bilbao into submission.

On May 23, 1937, this desperate situation convinced Basque mothers that the only way to save their children from death was to send them away—tearing their very hearts from their bodies—to live with strangers in a foreign country, the United Kingdom, despite the fact that the British government had signed a non-intervention agreement and the care of these children was solely the result of the generosity of the British public. In total, four thousand Basque children were sent to live in England and Wales with not much more than hexagonal tags pinned to their clothing that stated an identification number and the words Expedición a Inglaterra. The children, not knowing if they would ever see their parents again, departed Bilbao on the SS Habana for Southampton in crowded conditions on a dilapidated ship that was intended to accommodate only eight hundred passengers. Some of the children—crying, tired, and terrified—were so young that they did not understand why their parents were sending them away. When they arrived in Southampton, they were inspected by doctors for lice, disease, and malnutrition. They were given vaccinations, sorted into groups, and sent to different facilities across England and Wales. While some of the Basque children were never reunited with their parents who were either killed during the war or never found, and some older children simply chose not to return to Spain—the country that had brought them so much pain—it is a testimony to the selfless love of these mothers that every one of their children’s lives was saved.

Sylvia Plath did everything she could to save the lives of her children. On that dark winter day in London, she waited until her children were asleep in their beds to turn on the gas in her oven. With a considerable amount of forethought and love—before she laid her head down to die—Plath stuffed socks and rags under the door to her kitchen so that her children, Nicholas and Frieda, would not risk inhaling the poisonous gas that she so desired for herself. In the end, though, all her effort was not enough. On March 16, 1984, Sylvia Plath’s forty-seven-year-old son, Nicholas Hughes—who had been only one year old when his mother died—hung himself in a house thousands of miles away from that dark London apartment. While it is unclear why Hughes committed suicide, the causes of mental illness are often too difficult to sort through—they get mixed up with all the other abandoned remains—it is likely that his mother’s death still haunted him. More poetically stated, the writer Barbara Kingsolver once said, “Memories do not always soften with time; some grow edges like knives.”

If internal organs can get mixed up during slaughtering and lives can get mixed up during war, I wonder if there is ever a bird—one of those cold and hollow carcasses—that accidentally ends up with two hearts. It must be possible, I would think, despite the precise automation of modern processing facilities. I ask this because I once found myself with two hearts, one slow and one fast. The fast heart was too small for me to even feel in my body. I did not know it was there until someone told me. This other heart—the small and fast one inside me—was not really my heart and I did not want it there. The heart must have known that I did not want it because one day it stopped beating—all on its own—and I had to have it cut out of my body with a knife. I never held it in my hand. I never measured it against the weight of my own heart. When I was offered the remains of everything cut out from inside of me—when I was offered the remains to put in a grave—I turned my head away and said that I did not want them. When I said that I did not want the heart, it was thrown in the trash with all the other remains that no one wanted.

I wonder where this heart is now.

I wonder if there is ever a dead bird that ends up with no heart at all.

During the Spanish Civil War, those who opposed the fascist uprising were often executed and thrown in mass graves. When archeologists unearth these lost souls, it is often hard to separate the bones. Sometimes bones are missing. Sometimes the remains are all mixed up. In 2020, Spanish archeologists in the small village of Uncastillo—located in the northeastern province of Aragon—uncovered one such mass grave. It contained the remains of ten women whose bones were set free. They were mothers, daughters, and wives who were killed on August 31, 1936, during the early days of the war. While the exact total of those who died during the civil war will never be known, most historians estimate that at least 500,000 people were killed between 1936-1939, and that at least 100,000 bodies still remain missing in unmarked mass graves.

Historical research of the Spanish Civil War has largely left untold the story of war atrocities toward women. Until recently, Spain did little to recognize any war crimes—male or female—after the death of Franco in 1975. Instead, the government politically arranged “The Pact of Forgetting,” with the goal of ensuring a peaceful transition back to democracy after years of Franco’s iron-rule dictatorship. Parties on both the left and right of Spain’s political spectrum agreed to not pursue investigations or persecutions related to the civil war. Essentially they wanted the past to stay buried in the past. This is not what happened, though. Families of those who had been brutally killed by Franco’s uprising and subsequent dictatorship—some executed and thrown into mass graves—would not forget. Eventually in 2020, the Spanish leftist coalition government agreed to finance the exhumation of mass graves in an attempt to “restore democratic memory.”

On that fateful day in Uncastillo, the ten women—whose bones have recently been unearthed—were dragged from their homes and shot by a firing squad. Their bodies were dumped in a shallow pit in the neighboring town of Farasdués. The mass excavation revealed one particular skeleton of interest, a woman with one arm outstretched under the neck of another woman buried next to her in the pit. To someone not normally experienced with the haphazard positioning of bodies tossed into a mass grave, the woman’s gesture might appear to express solidarity, even in death.

While it is unclear why this particular woman was shot—some were targeted because of their political leanings, activism, or as substitutes for a male relative—there is no mistaking the horrifying angle of her skull. Tipped back against the dry earth—jaws spread wide in an eternal scream—the head is that of the woman cradling her dead child in Picasso’s Guernica. The likeness is unmistakable. This woman, though—the one shot by a firing squad and later buried in a shallow pit—has a bullet hole through her skull. There are also a few remnants of the dress that she wore when she was killed: seven white buttons that are oddly recognizable when taken out of context. They trace a winding path up the woman’s spine.

The artistic technique of collage, where different materials, such as paper, fabric or wood are taken out of context and applied to a surface with glue or paint, was frequently used by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque in the early twentieth century. Both artists are, of course, well known for developing the style of art called Cubism. One of the characteristics of Cubism is that it is emotionally detached from the subject it portrays, focusing more on physical qualities than internal conflict. Eventually, however, Picasso and Braque realized that the expression of Cubism had become too analytical and lacked emotional depth. In 1912, they began applying collage to their drawings and paintings in order to add additional layers of meaning. They used scissors to snip, trim, and clip pieces of modern life: newspapers, journals, wallpaper, and sheet music. They used utility knives to cut up pieces of cardboard and linoleum. Picasso and Braque then took these cut pieces of life from the places they frequented—cafes, hardware stores, newsstands—and pasted them directly on the canvas. Sometimes they even painted or drew over them with charcoal, pencil, and watercolor. These collage pieces were what Braque called certitudes, recognizable images from modern life.

In 2011, Spanish archaeologists excavating an old cemetery in Palencia, found a surprisingly recognizable object in the dry and dusty grave of a young mother, Catalina Muñoz Arranz, who had been shot by a firing squad on September 22, 1936 during the Spanish Civil War. Next to her skeleton—where most likely there had been the pocket of her dress—was a small baby rattle. Brightly colored and shaped like a flower, it contrasted with the dry Spanish soil and Catalina’s dull gray bones. The toy rattle had been for her youngest son, Martín de la Torre Muñoz, who was just eight months old at the time of his mother’s death. A witness to the execution remembers that Catalina held Martín in her arms when she was chased by local members of the Falange who were sympathetic to Francisco Franco. When Catalina, who had been accused of attending leftist demonstrations, fell while fleeing her pursuers, she handed Martín to her neighbors who saved the child’s life. Catalina was arrested and killed by a firing squad, the bullets shattering her skull. Martín, who is in his eighties with no memory of that day, now has the baby rattle that was intended for him as a child. When asked about Catalina, he said with tears in his eyes, “If my mother were here, I would tell her that I love her and that she made me very happy.”

Almudena García-Rubio, an anthropologist with the Aranzadi Science Society who excavated Catalina’s baby rattle, affirms that it was a remarkable discovery; no other similar object has been unearthed from the Spanish Civil War. García-Rubio also acknowledges the emotional significance of the baby rattle when she says, “It is a very symbolic object, the lively colors next to the earth-colored bones is a reminder of a motherhood that was cut short, which to a degree, represents everything that happened in the war.”

When Picasso cut paper collage pieces from typical forms that are universally identifiable—the way a baby rattle is always a rattle, for example—and then applied them to a new context, he achieved multiple layers of meaning. There is always the original meaning of the object—a rattle is still a rattle—but the image of the rattle in a grave alongside the skeleton of the baby’s mother creates a new context that is both dark and disturbing. Picasso synthesized images of many familiar objects—guitars, bottles, and human bodies—with snippets from newspaper columns, true crime novels, and literary essays. This superimposition of meaning and material, when effectively balanced, creates an uncomfortable discord of competing interpretations.

Balance is important in a knife.

Quality knives have approximately the same amount of weight in both the handle and the blade. If a knife is properly weighted, when I place my extended index finger under the knife at the hilt and hold it horizontally with the cutting edge down—essentially resting the knife on the top of my finger—the knife should remain balanced and suspended in mid-air, neither falling forward nor backward when, with the other hand, I remove my grip on the handle. A balanced knife is important for repetitive movements of force when my hand—and perhaps my soul—tires from the work of cutting up something that was once alive.

Picasso experimented with collage when painting Guernica, but only with the women in the painting, each one emotionally overcome by the brutal and relentless attack on their city. The artist applied floral wallpaper to the body of the woman fleeing a burning building, transforming the cut paper into a head scarf that hung from her shoulder and covered an exposed breast. He also applied wallpaper to the torsos of the weeping mother and the woman trapped in the burning building. It is unclear, though, why Picasso only applied collage to the women characters in Guernica. It is possible that these pieces of wallpaper were meant to represent the destruction of everyday things in their lives, such as tables, chairs, and clothes—or even children—-that were torn apart by bombs. Whatever the case, these cut papers that Picasso applied to the women did not survive his creative process. He later tore the pieces from their bodies like clothing in a violent attack. The women of Guernica are forever exposed—running, mourning, and wailing—in all their vulnurability.

In order to determine if a knife is sharp, I hold up a sheet of paper and—from top to bottom—cut cleanly through it. While this test may seem like nothing more than a clever parlor trick, if the knife fails to slice cleanly through the paper—if there is any resistance such as torn or ragged edges that might reveal internal conflict—I know my blade needs to be honed with a sharpening steel. Honing my knife makes difficult jobs much easier, but it also requires a good deal of skill. When I hone my knife before cutting up a bird, I hold the sharpening steel at a vertical angle with the handle at the top. I then place the edge of the knife blade at a fifteen-degree angle to the steel. This precise angle is important for proper honing in order to maintain a sharp edge. Once I have the correct angle, I slide the blade down the steel with a sweeping motion. With years of practice, I have learned to do this quickly and efficiently. A total of four or five passes on either side of the blade is usually enough to realign and straighten the edge until I have a razor-sharp knife that will easily cut through resistant cartilage or flexible tissue that connects and articulates the joints of animals.

For particularly labor-intensive tasks that require additional force—such as severing limbs—I prefer a blade where the metal extends through the entire length of the knife and is seamlessly bolted between the handle on either side. This characteristic of a high-quality knife is called full tang, as opposed to partial tang where the blade either ends at the hilt or only slightly deeper into the center of the handle. Full tang knives have better balance and are stronger than knives that have only partial tang. They are also better able to overcome the resistance of bone and those memories that do not always soften with time.

Sometimes when I am cutting up the wings and legs and breasts of a bird, the joints refuse to separate despite the sharpness of my knife and the weight of my body pushing down on the flesh and bone. Sometimes the bird refuses to yield to me. I feel a lightheadedness when the watery blood pools on the cutting board, a kind of queasiness and sudden awareness that a child once inside me—not some vulnurable animal slashed at the neck and left to bleed out, not some small feathery thing or broken-winged bird rendered with oil on canvas—a child, long dead and receded into the dark background of my past, still has the will to live. It still has a heart.

I am unable to see the heart of the bird in Guernica.

The bird must have a heart, though—even if I cannot see it—because it cries up to heaven, knowing that it is about to die. I see that its eyes are painfully twisted and one of its wings is already broken, but because I cannot see its heart, I am not sure that it is there. I can only see that blinding white reflection where there should be a heart, where there should be an endless blue expanse deep inside me. This blinding white reflection is my own knife—full tang and forged for strength—slicing the neck of the bird.

I tell myself it was only ever a memory.

Because my knife is forged for strength, when I extend one of the legs of the bird, I am able to easily cut through the skin. I cut through the skin just enough so that when I pull the leg away from the carcass, the ball joint pops from the socket. This helps me to determine where exactly I need to cut. When I have correctly positioned my knife, I completely slice the leg from the body as close as possible to the backbone, repeating the same steps on the other side of the bird. Then I separate the thighs from the lower legs by slicing through a line of fat that marks the joint between them. Once I have removed the thighs, I place the slaughtered bird breast-side up and remove the wings. I do this by pulling them away from the body and using my fingers to feel for the joints that I cut right through. Finally, I turn the carcass on its side—in its own pool of blood—and look for a line of fat that runs from top to bottom. This is where I place my knife to cut through the rib cage, separating the breast from the backbone. I repeat this process and remove the other breast. There is nothing really left of the bird now and I have grown tired from all the effort. I never did find its heart.

With this living thing that was once a bird, then a child, then a memory—or perhaps it was first a child and then a memory and then a bird—all the pieces get so mixed up that not even a high-quality knife—forged for strength and forgetting—is enough to do the job. There are days when I am startled awake in the middle of the night with the frantic flapping of wings, my own heart that will not slow its beating. There are days when I see a bird. There are days when I see a child. When this happens—when I see a child—I abandon my knife and resort to using my bare hands to loosen and pull the bones free.

Sometimes not even that is enough.


“10 Interesting Facts About the Human Heart.” Flushing Hospital Medical Center. 22 June 2018. https://www.flushinghospital.org/newsletter/10-interesting-facts-about-the-heart. Accessed 15 November 2021.

Armentrout, Jennifer. “How to Cut a Whole Chicken into Pieces.” Fine Cooking. https://www.finecooking.com/article/how-to-cut-a-whole-chicken-into-pieces. Uploaded 14 October 2021

Chiasson, Dan. “Sylvia Plath’s Joy.” The New Yorker. 12 February 2013. https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/sylvia-plaths-joy. Accessed 23 October 2021.

“Cuban Missile Crisis.” John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. https://www.jfklibrary.org/about-us/about-the-jfk-library. Accessed 23 October 2021.

Davies, Hywel. Fleeing Franco: How Wales Gave Shelter to Refugee Children from the Basque Country During the Spanish Civil War. University of Wales Press, Cardiff, Wales, 2011. Print.

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Domínguez, Nuño. “The Rattle that United a Mother Shot in the Spanish Civil War and Her 83-Year-Old Son.” El País. 24 June 2019. https://english.elpais.com/elpais/2019/06/24/inenglish/1561378371_010230.html. Accessed 14 November 2021.

Farago, Jason. “An Art Revolution Made, Made With Scissors and Glue.” The New York Times. 9 January 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/01/29/arts/design/juan-gris-cubism-collage.html. Accessed 4 November 2021.

Irujo, Xabier. The Bombing of Gernika. Center for Basque Studies. University of Nevada, 2018. Print. 

Irujo, Xabier. The Bombing of Gernika. Ekin. Buenos Aires, Argentina, 2021. Print.

Katz, Brigit. “Archaeologists Open One of Many Mass Graves From the Spanish Civil War.” Smithsonian Magazine. 30 August 2018. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/archaeologists-open-one-mass-graves-spanish-civil-war-180970175/. Accessed 13 November 2021.

Martin, Russell. Picasso’s War: The Destruction of Guernica, and the Masterpiece That Changed the World. Dutton, 2002. Print.

McMechan, Ian. “‘Cut’ by Sylvia Plath: Ian McMechan Discovers not Just an Ironic Personal Summary but a Concise History of America in this Short, Neglected Poem.” The English Review. Vol. 16, no. 1, Sept. 2005, pp. 21+. Gale Literature Resource Center, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A136339231/LitRC?u=anon~93010af1&sid=googleScholar&xid=d44370ca. Accessed 23 Oct. 2021.

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Murray, Lorraine. “Factory-Farmed Chickens: Their Difficult Lives and Deaths.” Encyclopaedia Britannica: Saving Earth. Encyclopedia Britannica. 2021. https://www.britannica.com/explore/savingearth/the-difficult-lives-and-deaths-of-factory-farmed-chickens. Accessed 14 October 2021.

The New American Bible. Stephen J. Hartdegen, O.F.M., S.S.L. and Christian P. Ceroke, O. Carm., S.T.D., Nihil Obstat. Saint Joseph Personal Size Edition of the New American Bible. Catholic Book Publishing Corp., 1970. Print.

O’Connor, Anahad. “Nicholas Hughes, 47, Sylvia Plath’s Son, Dies.” The New York Times. 24 March 2009. https://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/24/books/24hughes.html. Accessed 15 November 2021.

Palmer, Alex W. “The Battle Over the Memory of the Spanish Civil War.” Smithsonian Magazine. July 2018. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/battle-memory-spanish-civil-war-180969338. Accessed 13 November 2021.

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Jean McDonough has a bachelor’s degree in Fine Art Photography from the Cleveland Institute of Art and a Master of Fine Arts degree in Poetry Writing from the University of Michigan. She has taught creative writing at the University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University, as well as middle school art and language arts. Currently she works as an elementary school librarian and lives in Woodstock, Illinois. Jean is working on a collection of essays inspired by Pablo Picasso’s Guernica.

Writing as Recovery: Melissa Febos’ Body Work

By Kate Brandt

In the January 10, 2022 issue of the New Yorker, an article by Parul Seghal appeared called “The Key to Me,” and advertised as The case against the trauma plot.  I dropped what I was doing and read it instantly.  As a writer who draws mainly upon the struggles of my own life for material (my ex-husband joked that I should call my unpublished novel “The Things That Hurt Me”), I wanted to know precisely what I was being accused of. 

As I read, my fears were confirmed. Seghal laments the proliferation of what she calls “the trauma plot” in contemporary storytelling, listing many examples and complaining that their creators cannot “bring characters to life without portentous flashbacks to formative torments….the trauma plot,” writes Seghal, “flattens, distorts, reduces character to symptom.”

What a magnificent counterargument can be found in the essays that make up Melissa Febos’ new craft book, Body Work.  Although Febos’ essays focus on memoir rather than fiction, they very much take up the argument.  Each piece focusses on a different aspect of memoir writing, but Febos’ embrace of trauma as material for writing would make Segal shudder—indeed, Seghal mentions Febos’ words on trauma as an example of how oppressive “trauma narratives” have become.  The elegance and depth of Febos’ writing in this collection are the best comeback.

Melissa Febos, photo by Beowulf Sheehan

In “In Defense of Navel-Gazing,” Febos’ justification for writing the self is three-pointed.  One of these points is political.  She writes:

That these topics of the body, the emotional interior, the domestic, the sexual, the relational are all undervalued in intellectual literary terms, and are all associated with the female spheres of being, is not a coincidence.   This bias against personal writing is often a sexist mechanism.    

Citing works like Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Diary of a Young Girl, and Night, she points out that “Social justice has always depended upon the testimonies of the oppressed.”

A second point of her defense: Personal writing is art.  Just because we write about ourselves, this “does not excuse you from the extravagantly hard work of making good art, which is to say art that succeeds by its own terms.” 

Her third point: It heals.  Febos cites a study done by James W. Pennebaker in the 1980s, in which people were instructed to write about a past trauma.  The results:

Monitoring over the subsequent year revealed that those participants made significantly fewer visits to physicians. Pennebaker’s research has since been replicated numerous times, and his results supported.  Expressive writing about trauma strengthens the immune system, decreases obsessive thinking, and contributes to the overall health of the writers.

Later essays in Body Work focus on writing sex scenes, writing about others in memoir, and writing as recovery.  In the last essay, Return, Febos dives deeply into the connections between healing, art, and the divine.  This is where Febos leans most on trauma and is also the point at which I was most drawn in.  Rather than expressing embarrassment about the confessional nature of memoir writing, Febos celebrates it.

In Return, Febos recalls a longing she felt, even as a child, for a certain transcendence.  This longing found an outlet in writing, a need and obsession that never left her. As a child, Febos tell us, she wrote with “religious enthusiasm.” 

As a mature writer, writing sometimes afforded her a chance at that longed for transcendent state.  Febos describes herself at a residency, writing the story of an obsessive relationship in her life.  As she wrote, in

a kind of trance, characterized by total self-forgetting…inside an intelligence…loyal only to the work to which it is applied…I had the lucid and entirely certain realization that there was only one correct ending to my story: my narrator would leave her lover.

In the act of writing, she had unearthed truths about why she was in the relationship that she had hidden even from herself, and which she subsequently acted on—life follows art.   Febos here uses the word “recovery” in both senses—a healing from illness, but also retrieval of some aspect of the self that had been lost to the writer—and shows that these two meanings are intimately connected. 

My own novel, coming out next year, is autobiographical.  If I had to say what it was “about,” I would list these themes: passion, the Buddhist concept of emptiness, illusion, and depression. 

Depression is difficult to capture on the page.  So heavy, so paralyzing, so…wordless.  While writing countless drafts, that was probably where I got stuck the most—how to show what that kind of despair is like.

I spent roughly thirty years of my life in and out of therapy with a diagnosis of major depression.  A fact that, as one friend put it, was ridiculous.   It was.  I was white, middle class, heterosexual, educated, healthy, gainfully employed, and at that age, good-looking.  I had no right to feel the way I did.

But there it was—chronic insomnia; daily crying fits, drinking myself to numbness nearly every night. 

How many times during my depression was I told by friends and family to “get over it?”  When depressed, that is exactly the problem.  Intellectually, I knew: yes, I should get over this.  But I didn’t. 

In Return, Febos mentions an attitude of toughness she took to her own sexual trauma at a certain point in her life.  “Embedded in that choice,” she writes, “was my abiding belief in the fantasy of toughness.”  This attitude covered a deeper sense of shame she felt.  In her first attempt at nonfiction, she tells us, she wrote about the experience of being a sexual submissive for pay.  She was not ashamed of what she had done, but rather “I was more ashamed of my unknowing than of my actions…for me, at twenty-five, a lack of self-knowledge was a cause for shame.” 

I recognized both states of mind.  When I began to write, I, too, hoped writing could be a tool that would help me resolve unanswered questions and the shame I felt about my depression.  My friends were right of course—I had plenty of privilege, a lot “going for me.”  How to explain myself?  What was wrong with me, after all? 

I also had ambivalence about writing my own story.  I had, at that point, been studying Buddhism for a few years, and my teacher made a point of urging his students not to get mired in our own self-pity.  A key tenet of Buddhism is the idea of “no-self,”—that we manufacture an idea of self through the combination of sensations that coalesce in our brains.   If we are to cultivate awareness of this truth, focusing on a narrative we create about ourselves would be counterproductive.  This teacher ridiculed students who wanted to pour their hearts out to him.  I remember once trying to speak to him about things that troubled me.  He smiled gently.  “Soap opera,” he said.

I wrote about myself anyway.  I had to.  Like Febos, I wrote to free myself from the shame of own lack of self-knowledge.  In the long process of trying to know myself more deeply through writing, I found that writing changed me. 

Story has its own demands.  There must be verisimilitude.   There must be a shape.  In the struggle to bring these elements to my personal story, an interesting alchemical process took place.  Slowly, draft after draft after draft, I began to get some distance from my pain.  The hold that my story had on me, especially the despairing, self-pitying part, began to loosen.  I came to see the “things that hurt me,” as my ex so mockingly put it, were actually, in a sense, accidents. It wasn’t personal. 

In Return, Febos writes that “memoirs begin as conversations with the self…Our first confessions must be to this internal witness.”  Through this process, both textual and spiritual, we begin to see ourselves clearly, and, more importantly, forgive ourselves.  When she writes, Febos tells us, she is two selves—the one who has experienced the past, and the one who observes, processes, and sees through what she thought was there.   “By my own higher power, by the self that is capable of holding the most pitiful part of her past and loving her clean” Febos is able to clearly see a former self, and have compassion.     

I had a similar experience writing my own life.  At a certain point, I realized that while much of what my Buddhist teacher had instilled in me was valuable, contempt for myself and my own story, my own version of myself, was not.  It came to me that if Buddhism was a religion based on compassion, there was no reason not to have compassion for myself as well, and that this compassion, paradoxically, made me more emotionally available to others.  What I’m trying to say, I suppose, is that in Body Work, I believe Febos unearths valuable truths.   

I write, but my main occupation is teaching adult literacy.  I’ve done this work since 1990, working with adults who dropped out of high school for various reasons such as pregnancy or the need to care for a family member, as well as immigrants who received various levels of education in their own countries. 

Few groups are more in need of writing their stories.  Most of my students have suffered, and continue to suffer, multiple traumatic experiences—the traumas of racism and/or immigration; the shame of being less well-educated; the ongoing hardship and humiliation of poverty.  Teaching adults has shown me that, regardless of literacy level, the wish to be heard is universal.  When I ask my students to write; when I repeat to them the adage that my own writing teacher shared with me—tell the story only you can tell—there is often a moment of hushed surprise.  Me?  A story?  And then, permission granted, they begin. 

“The final phase of trauma recovery,” writes Febos in Return, is often described as grounded in a reconnection and restored engagement with social life.”  This reconnection with the community is another spiritual aspect of confession as Febos conceives of it in the essay, and it is something my students understand instinctively.  The stories can be heartbreaking—multiple foster homes, addiction, losing one’s own children.  When one student reads, the rest of us listen respectfully and for as long as it takes for the storyteller to finish.  At other times in class—when reviewing comma use, or the parts of a cell—I may be divided from my students by our different backgrounds, but when we read our personal narratives, we are always a community as sacred as church. 

Seghal complains that the “trauma plot,” as she calls it, “reduces character…can make us myopic to the suffering of others…disregards what we know.”  Febos is more generous. 

“Listen to me,” she writes.  “It is not gauche to write about trauma…bring me your books about girlhood, about queer families and sex workers, your trans bildungsromans. I will read them all.”

Febos dedicated her book to her students, but this book will touch many of us—all of us who have questioned our right to speak—who have not thought ourselves worthy of being heard. It’s one thing to be censored, spoken over, silenced by others—quite another to do it to yourself.  In Body Work, Febos has freed us from that self-censure, and I am grateful.


Kate Brandt’s work has appeared in various publications, including Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, Talking Writing, Literary Mama and Redivider. Her novel Hope for the Worst will be published by Vine Leaves Press in 2023. She works as an adult literacy instructor in New York City. 

Visit her website at Katebrandt.net

Photo by Christine Petrella