Bystander

In Los Angeles, outside of my window, I saw a man grab a woman’s arm and shake, hard. I was already at the window because I’d heard them fighting from about a block away. She was pushing an old shopping cart. He was yelling about something. And then the shake. I immediately thought about calling 911, and then I froze. I had this blazing shameful feeling of, like, I don’t know what the protocol is. What’s worth a call? What’s just wasting their time? A man shakes a woman at night on a side street in Cypress Park, Los Angeles. No one has ever figured out how to stop him.

In the 1960s, Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death in New York City. The case is famous; I’m sure you’ve heard of it. Papers falsely reported that almost forty people heard her screams and did nothing. The truth was a bit murkier. One person did one thing. A man flung open his window and yelled, “Hey, get out of there! What are you doing?” and the killer ran away, leaving Kitty bleeding but alive.

But then, for the next thirty minutes, she was alone. Someone flung open a window but no one came down onto the street. It would have been so easy to run downstairs and carry her inside while her attacker was gone. But no one opened their doors, and as Kitty slowly dragged her bleeding body into the lobby of the apartment building, the killer came back for her. “I had a feeling this man would close his window and go back to sleep,” said the killer, in court, “and sure enough, he did.”

It’s not uncommon, living in a city, to hear a scream outside your window. Just like it’s not uncommon to hear something that sounds like guns but is actually firecrackers, or vice versa. Mostly it’s just happy drunken screeching by people stumbling to and from bars, but sometimes you hear the sort of scream that makes you leap out of bed and throw open the window. I always look from each window of my apartment when I hear a scream. Screams are weird aural things and it’s hard to know which direction they’re coming from. Once I got lost in an elaborate and terrible daydream in which I tried to drop a concrete block out of my window onto an imaginary perpetrator but smashed the victim instead. People like me are dangerous, with the will but not necessarily the means to save another human—or with a weak will, or no will at all, and a demon on our shoulders who whispers, Maybe someone else will take care of it and maybe it’s not all that bad.

In Los Angeles, I tried to make up for my fearfulness by going outside and following the couple in the darkness. I’m putting myself in danger, I thought, half-pleased with myself. I followed them away from the main street. I started feeling like the creepy one. I had my phone. If I see one more thing…I thought to myself. I didn’t see him touch her again and eventually they vanished and I, scared of the dogs that roamed the streets of my neighborhood at night, turned back home.

Once, years ago, someone saw me stumble in a dark alleyway. It was a dangerous Chicago neighborhood, sometime after midnight. The thing was that I was fine. I was with Charlie. We were having an amazing night. I forget what we were joking about, but we were cackling and pushing each other around, as you do when you don’t want the night to end. Just then a car pulled up and someone rolled down a window.

“Are you okay?” they yelled to me.

I said something like, “Oh yeah, yeah, this is my boyfriend, we’re just joking around.” But they didn’t leave. In fact, I remember being irritated by their skepticism, irritated by the way they lingered. They just stared at me through the open window for a long, quiet moment, waiting for some shadow to flit across my face. “I’m fine, I’m fine!” I chirped. It took them another minute to drive away. I still think of them, from time to time, and how beautiful it was that they took so long to believe me.

The Predator-Prey Spectrum

A girl wakes up and a stranger is sitting on her chest, incubus-style. She’s an ordinary human, a regular girl with a regular life, but something inside her wakes up. A crazy, beautiful, almost superhuman force. She fights and fights, her throat is slashed ear to ear, and she keeps fighting. She makes it to the bathroom and barricades the door and holds her own throat shut until the ambulance gets there.

Miles and years away, another stranger is drinking human blood. He is a true believer. He is simply doing what he has to do to survive. And to survive he has wandered into a house and systematically murdered everyone who lives there. He needs blood! He himself broke long ago. And easily. The world tapped on his brain like a fingernail on an egg. It cracked and spilled and no one paid attention and now here he is, covered in the blood of babies.

There’s a mystery to humans, to any human. The psyche, a human’s “animating spirit,” is often represented as a moth: a dusty creature draw toward what kills it. Did you know Jeffrey Dahmer was baptized in jail, and when he emerged from the whirlpool, he smiled? What neurons fired then? What wings brushed across his cortex?

Minor Stressors

Happy Friday, world! It is I, Tori of Tori Dot Gov, and I want to tell you here and now that if you ever find someone else typing merrily away on this government-sponsored website, chase them down with a pitchfork, because this is MY SPACE TO SHINE. MINE.

Why yes, I will take a refill of that coffee, thank you.

The world very well may be collapsing around us, but I have never been one to fiddle while Rome burns. I do not take delight in chaos. No. Like a deep sea creature, I turn inward, focusing instead on the tiny grain of sand that is irritating my tender fins. I zoom in. I double down. I get petty.

In the spirit of solipsism, here’s a list of things that are stressing me out.

Deadlines of all shapes and sizes.

Oh, you guys. When will I learn? WHEN WILL I LEARN? I recently slashed my hours at an editing job from 30+/week to 15ish, because I wanted more time to pitch and write freelance articles. ALMOST IMMEDIATLEY after achieving that dream, sending out pitches, and getting some of them accepted, I remembered the truly terrible thing about freelance writing: the constant low-grade sense that you are falling behind on not one editor’s deadline, but TEN THOUSAND EDITORS’ DEADLINES. Do the math. That is ten thousand angry editors coming at you with pitchforks. QED, that is TEN THOUSAND PITCHFORKS.

Grants.

I have never gotten a grant for anything in my life. This is probably because I am always stretching the truth on my grant applications (“I have a team of trained theater professionals ready and waiting to build the set,” I write, figuring that if I do get the grant I will just force my brothers to fly out and build said set for me).

In the spirit of someone who yells “I QUIT!” just as their boss is explaining that they’re fired, I have decided that grants are an absolute scam. I mean, the money it takes to apply for grants. The time. And for a reward of what, $500? (No one wants to give writers more than $500 at a time.) Absurd. I could make $500 waitressing at a sports bar over the course of one weekend when the Blackhawks are in some sort of playoff situation. And then I could turn right around and spend that money on a sweatshirt that says “MacArthur Genius.” GOODBYE, GRANT WORLD, SEE YOU NEVER.

The accounts I now have on babycenter.com and momforum.com.

I’m looking for a few more mothers to interview for an article I’m writing, and I decided that posting in a mom forum would be a good way to get interviewees. Unfortunately, no one wants to join in the fun, AND babycenter.com made me PICK A DUE DATE in order to register. I clicked blindly and landed on May 24, 2017. The whole thing felt wrong.

Writing.

 I know that getting better at writing happens in peaks and plateaus. Sometimes you advance really quickly (like, when you literally learn the alphabet), sometimes you inch along writing the same damn “poignant ending” over and over. I feel as though I’m on a plateau right now, and I can’t get out of it because I ironically have too much to write and it’s all due too soon. I used to think that simply writing made your writing better, but now I’m not so sure. I think you also need time and mental space to think about what you’re doing and how.

Actually, scratch that, I have changed my belief system once again. Writing will make your writing better. Even bad, dashed-off writing. Doing one pushup will make you microscopically stronger, right? Unless you do it incorrectly and somehow horribly wrench a muscle and then you can’t move for weeks and meanwhile you’re losing muscle mass fast? 

The five minutes last night when I thought my computer was truly dead and I realized I hadn’t backed up my documents in months.

 Actually, file this under “true horror” and not “minor stress.” If my computer ever meets its Maker, you will find me wandering the streets, clad in my wedding dress, holding a soggy notebook, laughing madly. It will not be pretty. I am tethered to reality by this blessed piece of…plastic? (What are computers made of? Angel’s wings?)

What It’s Like to Major in Opera and Poetry and Then Decide Not to Be an Opera Singer, Cry on a Balcony in Rome, Try a Bunch of Other Things, and Eventually Find Yourself: an Interview with Rose Truesdale

photo by @linacaro

BEST FRIENDS AND NEMESES ALIKE, WELCOME. Wait—you leave. (Sorry, that was my arch-nemesis Abraham, he’s not welcome here, I’ll tell you about him later.) The following is an interview with the ever-thoughtful Rose Truesdale, wellness writer extraordinaire. Rose and I went to the same university, and the first few years out of school were spent having a lot of “what do I want to do with this creative writing degree”-type talks. (Okay, talks and cries, let’s be honest.) Rose is a hustler who’s not afraid of a good side gig, which is a trait I prize extremely highly in people. 

I recently wrote an article for Vice about what it’s like to give up on an artistic dream or two, and Rose’s interview was so good that I wanted to post the whole thing here. (The cruel reality of most articles is that you have to cut down people’s interview answers SOOOOO MUCH that it’s hard to capture the entire complexity of any one human being in any one article and still make your word count limit without causing your editor to buy a plane ticket to Chicago, make a copy of your apartment key, and murder you in your sleep. This means that, after most of my articles go live, I feel this pit of anxious guilt in my stomach as I email my interviewees, hoping they won’t feel misrepresented and buy a plane ticket to Chicago, make a copy of—well, you get it.) 

Here’s Rose: 

Do you identify as a “failed artist”? 

Not particularly, although I did for a long time. In college, I double majored in opera performance and poetry (… Right?!), and today I operate in the food and wellness writing sphere. My life is still tremendously artful and imbued with creative expression – I have purple hair for God’s sake – but it fits me better than opera ever did.

For me, there’s a tremendous difference between the roles of “creative” (that’s creative as a noun) and “artist”: Simply, creatives are people that gotta create. They like to dabble, and regular creative expression sets them free. They have taste and vision, which makes them bomb entrepreneurs in the sense that many successful creators create their own lives and professions. Of course, it’s not all glamorous. Every creative has a soul-sucking 9-5 at some point in life, so they have to get creative in how they infuse their otherwise unstimulating day to day with creativity. And ideally that’s a wakeup call that sticks.

I would identify as a creative versus an artist. I’ve learned to work music into a life that serves me. I get paid to write and am building a business that represents my interests and aesthetic. And back to the dabbling piece: I write and sing (although I’ve diverged from poetry and opera and mostly write about my feelings on the internet/ concept weird new bands and rehearse three times before deciding I don’t have time to be in a weird new band.), yes, but I also draw, sculpt, develop plant-based recipes, take decent photos on my fancy camera – the trick is to use natural lighting and take ten thousand photos to get one good one – start podcasts that I never finish, interview badass ladies I admire, program arts events… and I started a zine with my boyfriend! But I don’t feel totally comfortable calling myself an artist.

Because artists are different. Artists commit to a craft. Opera, for instance, is a highly specific path that involves a lot of long, lonely hours in a practice room and as much technique as artistic expression. The path, itself, never felt creative to me at all: you audition for colleges with great music schools where you study for four years. You get accepted into music grad school and hopefully enough young artist programs to sustain you until you start getting hired for small stages around the country. And all of a sudden you’re in your mid-thirties and you’re not even a fully-fledged opera singer yet. Like, that is commitment. Plus, to be very honest, constantly worrying about the health of my voice (I couldn’t drink or eat tomato-based foods or speak too loudly in a bar for fear of losing my voice), was zero fun. Zero. Fun. The life of an opera singer made me anxious, insecure – the scrutiny… oh my God— and so, so broke. I hated it. So I chose to figure out a path that was better suited to the vision I had for myself…. which also wasn’t easy. For the bulk of my twenties, after making the decision to essentially start over, I was very lost. We’re talking daily existential crises and sobbing fits about “wasting my gift”. One time I stayed in an AirBnb next to a music school on a vacation to Rome, and I just sat on the balcony listening to budding opera divas sing their arpeggios and crying. But… I have a really good therapist. And today, I’m really proud of myself for ultimately designing a creative life that allows me to express myself better than opera did, and that I actually enjoy.

Why is the idea of a “failed artist” so taboo? Do you think it’s more taboo than the idea of, say, a failed doctor or a failed businessman?

Because artists are rebels! To become any kind of artist, you sort of have to go out on a limb… it’s a very rare case where an artist’s parents are like, “Sure! We’ll pay for you to go to art school and we’re comfortable with the idea that you might never be able to pay us back!” Pursuing any kind of creative life is brave as fuck. So to try to make it as a painter, for example – knowing that it’s not a practical choice, knowing that there’s nothing more personal than spewing your guts on paper – and to fail, by which I mean… to not be able to pay your rent enough times that you have to admit to yourself that it’s a problem. To get sick of the hustle and balancing four side jobs to fund your existence while also making enough time to paint, or to realize that said hustle is depriving you of human contact and you’re not okay. An artist’s life is her art, and if and when it’s ever over (or on pause! That’s a thing, too), it’s devastating. Failing as a doctor or finance person (I don’t even know what an actual title in finance would be) might still be devastating, but at least they can come back to their families and say: “Look, I made a very sensible choice, but it didn’t work out.”

You have a dual degree in opera and poetry. Was there a moment when you were like, “I’m NOT going to be an opera singer” or “I’m NOT going to be a poet”? Or was it a gradual thing? If you could go back, would you change anything about your path? If you could snap your fingers and be a working opera singer, would you do it?  

The decision to quit the opera life was definitely gradual. It was like a bad relationship – I knew it wasn’t working, but I had already put so many eggs into that basket, and like I said before, I didn’t want that all to go to waste. Finally, I admitted to myself that my life sort of sucked: I lived in a one room apartment, my boyfriend at the time dumped me because I was zero fun (that’s a whole ‘nother story. He can suck it, but he had a point.), I had an eating disorder and chronic anxiety that manifested as illness, largely attributed to the pursuit of perfection. Like, clearly, opera didn’t suit me. So it was just a matter of admitting that and then… accepting it. I use what I learned in poetry in most of my writing today, and I never set out to be a poet, really. Studying poetry was probably me attempting to be more well-rounded, so I never felt like I abandoned poetry.

To answer your last question, no way in hell. The arduous process of becoming an opera singer was more than enough to make me realize that I’m not at all cut out to be an opera singer. Because if you ever do become successful, the pressure’s 2000% greater! What if you’re starring in the Met’s opening night of La Bohème and your personal life is in shambles and you didn’t get enough sleep and you get a horrible review that ruins your career? That happens! Going down the opera path taught me that being required to perform on command doesn’t work for me (and was pretty psychologically damaging, tbh), prioritizing opera above everything and everyone else makes for a solitary life, the demand to be in perfect vocal shape at all times shook my confidence in an unhealthy way, and singing a bunch of dead white dudes’ music isn’t even how I best express myself! Traditional opera just didn’t fit me. Side note: I was in a feminist burlesque opera, and that experience ruled. I made $200 total for those four months, and I would do it again in a heartbeat.

 

We live in a world where creativity is often accompanied by positivity (the “make art everyday!” mindset, the 100 Days project, etc.). There’s a lot of emphasis on imperfection in art-making, too, and the sort of implication there is that you can’t fail. These attitudes can be really great and liberating. But let’s get really cynical for a moment. Is there a dark side to all of this? Art-making as obligation, perhaps? Sometimes it seems like art-making is almost imbued with this moral quality (like, if you’re not making art everyday…are you being a bad person?). 

Man, perhaps because of my relationship with perfectionism in art, I think this sort of practice is mostly positive. Have you read about Jens Lekman’s Postcards project, where he wrote one song every week for a year? I heard him speak in the fall, and he readily admitted that some of the songs were bad, or at least not up to his standards. But getting into the habit of creating for the sake of creating was ultimately very freeing. When the year was up, he had some really great material to pull from, and some material to forget about.

I do think that if you are a creative person with perfectionistic tendencies, you get attached to the idea of making something every day. You MUST make every day. When I was blogging almost daily and I skipped a day, I know I felt like I’d failed myself. But that’s not the point. The point is to get down and dirty with the process of making and allow yourself to present some truly mediocre work in the hopes that you learned something about yourself or your art form while making it.

Do you have any thoughts on the artist/non artist dichotomy? Like…why does it make people so uncomfortable? Why are people so embarrassed to NOT be an artist? (Maybe this question is a reflection of my own limited circles, because most of the people I know are in creative careers, but…)

Lollll I run in similar circles. Personally and professionally (because those lines get blurry with creatives), I hang with creative entrepreneurial types – freelancers, people that run their own show. Not to get all elitist about that: I have a ton of respect for doctors and engineers, etc., and a lot of my pals, too, have been working in a more corporate setting for years so that they can eventually pursue their dreams of filmmaking or movie scoring or what have you. I think you can be a person in a non-artistic field but have a creative spirit, and I think a lot of people discover that they’re creative later in life. I guess my point here is that everyone’s creative in some capacity, and I think people who do get embarrassed or defensive about not being artistic may actually have some deep-seated, unexplored desire to make art.

How do you see your past artistic studies + projects as helping or hindering your life today? Do you regret any of the artistic paths you’ve taken?

I think I answered this above, but I’ll clarify a bit. I’m not one of those “No regrets!” people. I think those people are full of shit. As noted, the pursuit of opera made me miserable… even though I love wailing onstage in my booming mezzo soprano voice. I love wearing wigs and crazy costumes. I love being the special snowflake, and performing fed that for me. But the lifestyle didn’t feed me at all (literally, you remember how poor I was), and in pursuing opera, I learned what doesn’t work for me. I learned to think for myself and decide what I want out of life. I know that sounds dramatic, but breaking free of a very set artistic path and carving out my own thing – that finely attuned self-awareneness – led me to be able to fully express myself.  So in this one instance, no regrets.

Thank you, Rose! Read more of Rose’s writing right this way and follow her on Instagram here

Plots I Never Finished

CURB ALERT: I’m setting out a bunch of unfinished story plots on the side of the road. First come first serve! If this post is still up, it means plots are still available. Thanks!!!!! Please no phone calls!!!!

The one about a girl trying to lure a boy first into a motel, and then into the woods, for nefarious-lite reasons (e.g., not murder, but lots of shadowy psychological manipulation). I finished several versions of this for workshop and then it just didn’t feel right so I wrote something else.

The one about a brother and sister who move to New Orleans after some unclear tragedy happens in their past. The sister starts hallucinating another self; this Other Self begins to achieve agency. This story has been through so many iterations I don’t even know what to do with it. Free to a good home.

The one where the title was filched directly from a Bolaño novel. It was a good title!!! I just couldn’t bring myself to, you know, steal it. And adding in some sort of attribution (after Bolaño or whatever) makes the page look so messy. Ironically, months later I stole the ending from this story and grafted it onto another story, which was published here. The weird thing is that I don’t really remember doing this. It’s as though I went into a Dr. Frankenstein-like trance, committed the surgery, and then woke with no memory of my horrific kleptomaniacal deed!!!

The one where my former best friend became a cannibal and ate her brother, because it was the apocalypse and everyone was starving. THIS ONE WAS REALLY WEIRD. No wonder a bunch of lit mags rejected it.

The one about Anne Boleyn’s beheading. Who hasn’t tried to write this story?? #Tudoriffic

The terrible one about a guy who ran a store in Highland Park, Los Angeles, where he sold old film cameras and sheaves of developed film. I wrote this one this past summer in a feverish desire to rack up page counts. I was flushed with victory, having just finished a 35-page story in a week, and felt that I could do anything, even write stories about men with MFAs in Performance Art who own old film stores (insert vaguely meaningful social commentary about art here). Alas, the manuscript limps along for a while and then just falls to the ground, exhausted, like a small deer who’s been chased by cheetahs for hours. Note: this simile has not been fact-checked.

The one about the dream I had where I was a journalist who follows Amy Winehouse into a surreal underground funhouse. Note to self: dreams rarely translate well into stories.

The one that began, “Astrid was always very wounded. I never quite knew what she wanted.” If I had a dime for every time I tried to name a character Astrid…

The one that began, “I read history books; I learn from the best.” Note to self: good opening line.

The one about parents who set their house on fire and kids who run away and vanish into the woods. Thematically similar to a lot of my early stories, wherein a Bad Thing happens inside the house, because the house itself is sort of a demonic figure, and salvation is found in nature, or, escape is found in nature, or salvation is escape, or escape is salvation, or something. Weirdly, there is a fish pond in this story and one of the kids accidentally steps on a fish and kills it. Like…that would never happen in real life, right? Fish are far too fast!

The one about the girl who goes fishing with her grandpa for the ghost of her dead sister but then it turns out her grandpa is already dead and her grandma is some sort of witch. A super traumatizing tale that doesn’t make a lot of sense (sample line: “I was scratching at his back, feeling the old fabric of his shirt shred under my fingernails and feeling his dry dead skin come off in strips.” EESH) but what can I say? I was working a 9-5 at the time; my brains were addled by capitalism!

Things I’m Genuinely Bad At, Part Two

Some time ago, I bared my soul to the world in the iconic post Things I’m Genuinely Bad At. That was the essay wherein I composed what may be my greatest line of all time: “You are probably never going to be a pop star and I am probably never going to be a neuroscientist, so it’s time to let certain dreams go so that we can focus on what’s truly important: making a lot of money while looking hot.”

O YOUNG TORI!!!!!

Anyway, today is not a day for nostalgia. Today is a day for self-reflection, for self-flagellation, for staring into the mirror and shrieking “WHY, CRUEL SELF, WHY?” And so I present you with Things I’m Genuinely Bad At, 2017 version.

Answering emails and texts in a timely fashion. It’s just too much stimulation, okay? Note that in 2013, I was also bad at this.

Maintaining a healthy level of skepticism about hippie remedies that I read about in comment sections. Now and then I find myself reading an article about Natural Ways to Remain Fabulous in Your 80s, and someone in the comment section says, apropos of nothing, “I eat a teaspoon of coconut oil mixed with lots of cayenne pepper every morning. It stimulates digestion and doubles as a preventative measure against common household pests! Also, I heat rocks in the oven and place them on my temples every time I have a hangover. I swear it works!” If I stumble across a comment like that, I cannot help but believe it. There’s something about the misspelled innocence of certain comment sections, the enthusiasm of crunchy oversharers, that instantly turns me into a disciple. “THIS PERSON IS FULL OF LIVED EXPERIENCE,” my brain shrieks. “HEAT UP ROCKS IN THE OVEN IMMEDIATELY.”

Getting MacArthur Genius Grants. This one’s pretty embarrassing, LOL!

Sitting still for long periods of time. Halfway through an hour-long phone interview the other day, I was leaping around my kitchen like a gnat, silently screaming into the phone. If a sermon is too long, I may sketch out story ideas in the margins of the bulletin. If you are in a band and your set is longer than 45 minutes, I can and will plot your death. How can we as a culture buy into the paleo diet but not understand that humans were not designed to sit in meetings, like, ever???

Longboarding. My fear of “going too fast” really bites me in the leg here.

Staying warm. Left to my own devices, I produce zero body heat. This is why you can occasionally find me sitting in my local gym’s steam room in full winter regalia, despite aggressive signage demanding that people steam in “shorts or bathing suit only.” Put on a bathing suit in January? Are you KIDDING?

 [Formerly] Fighting off fungus gnats. If you spoke to me during a certain few weeks in early December, you know that I was a woman possessed. Charlie and I have many, many houseplants in our apartment and they came down with a nasty fungus gnat infestation, for reasons that I cannot pretend to understand. I waged war against them for a couple of weeks, sobbing at my own futility (there are only so many gnats a lady can crush with her bare hands before going nearly insane!!!!) until finally, a few judicious insecticide purchases from Amazon killed most of the awful little beasts. I like to consider myself a compassionate person; I dislike eating meat for the obvious reasons, I would never crush a baby sparrow underfoot. But when it comes to fungus gnats, I turn into something else entirely—a thing without mercy. In the immortal words of James Cameron’s Terminator, “It can’t be bargained with; it can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity or remorse or fear and it absolutely will not stop—ever—until you are dead!”

Childhood and the Extinct Animal

I was in an airport when I saw the sign: there are only about 3,000 tigers left in the world. Actually, the phrasing on the sign was very diplomatic. It read something like, There may be as few as 3,000 tigers left in the world. Even as the tiger sprints toward extinction, it still defies the neat categorization of humans. We cannot be counted.

Still, the number remains, however approximate: 3,000. Point being that there are not very many tigers left.

I read the number and I immediately thought no, we can’t lose the tigers, but it wasn’t simply because the extinction of any creature is a tragedy. It was because the tiger stands for so much more than just an animal. “Tiger” is to “animal” as “red” is to “color”: a primary component of the category. One of the building blocks. A thing you learn about in kindergarten, for Darwin’s sake. After you’ve exhausted the creatures of the home and barnyard—cat, dog, pig, rooster, cow, horse, sheep—you level up to the animals of the jungle and the plain: tiger, lion, panther, zebra, giraffe. As a child, you don’t need to know—yet—about finches, anteaters, sloths, the mucus-covered stingray, the razor-toothed piranha. For a few years, it’s enough to know about the tiger and his compatriots.

The tiger was my brother John’s animal. Mine was the giraffe. I mean this literally: I had a tiny plastic giraffe, he had a tiny plastic tiger, both purchased in Rome. This dichotomy certainly shaped our taste in animals, if not our personalities themselves. I went on to favor graceful, vegetarian animals (the giraffe, the horse, the flamingo); John wore a pair of striped socks on his hands and was a tiger, John got a bike for his birthday that was decorated to look like a tiger. I collected small horse figurines, but there was always a tiger or two prowling around.

As a kid, you learn pretty quick that animals are mortal. Our family was cursed by a particularly gruesome string of pet deaths (ask my brother to tell you the story of the gerbils’ murder-suicide), but it’s not just about seeing a pet die, it’s about knowing that the animal world itself is in danger. I don’t remember the moment I realized that nature was not, in fact, a perfect biome that would go on forever and ever, but eventually I came to understand that it was grubby with human fingerprints—that it was burning out. Fireflies will die in a jar, no matter how many holes you poke in the lid; the baby bird you “rescued” is not going to survive off warm milk and crickets; the dog frothing behind the fence will never calm down, even after his owners have him neutered; the crisp shed skin of the snake is technically progress, but it will always look, to you, like a corpse.

Forever and ever, the primary animals of childhood march through our brains in a neat line: the dog, the cat, the horse, the cow, the lion, the zebra, the giraffe, the tiger. We owe them half of our personalities, three-fourths our strength of will. It’s sad that the dodo bird is extinct but the dodo bird did not teach us to snarl, to sleep in a tree, to devour, to embody power. That bird did not show us force, movement, menace, blood—the components of a passionate life. For that, we thank the tiger.

I know that time doesn’t go in reverse; what happens today can never affect what happened twenty years ago. But if the last tiger dies, I feel like hours and days of my childhood, too, will vanish from the earth. I won’t remember that there ever was a tiger. The little plastic tiger from Rome will never have existed. We’ll drift about, glib and unburdened, with no idea of the power that we’ve lost.

Forgotten Towns

ft3

One Saturday in August, Charlie and I spent 12 hours driving toward, along, around, and away from the Texas-Mexico border.

The first thing to know is that our entire “day trip” was informed by a very devious, very outdated, and quite frankly UTTERLY FALSE AND DIABOLICAL flier that we picked up at an overly hip hotel in Marfa, Texas. The flier urged us to visit the nearby hot springs—turns out you can only soak in the springs if you rent a cabin, like, decades in advance. It went on to recommend that we swing by Presidio, a quaint Texan border town filled with charming hotels, lots of restaurants, and “outstanding shopping.”

With visions of colorful woven baskets and kitschy Texas-themed merch dancing in my head­, we packed three types of film cameras, bagel chips and cheap spreadable cheese, hiking shoes just in case we came across a mountain, and a gallon of water I happened to have on hand. Then we peeled out of town.

Presidio

An important thing to know about me is that I LOVE things that are objectively depressing (though what’s more subjective than the declaration that something is “objectively depressing”?). I get a distinct thrill from them. This isn’t an ironic “hipster” consumeristic thrill, either—it is real, it is poignant, it is unexplainable. I love Dollar Trees. I love sketchy motels. I love happy hours at TGI Fridays. I love half-abandoned buildings, failed businesses, dusty opera houses. So when it became clear that Presidio was not a bustling little town, but rather a stopover on the long and lonely highway from Death to Hell, my first thought was: maybe I could love Presidio. 

We drove around and around, admiring the broken signage and faded lilac buildings, but soon it became clear that Presidio was nothing but dust and “Closed” signs and sketchy restaurants located in people’s actual houses. Eventually we made our way to a dollar store and bought peanut M&Ms in order to get a crisp $50 bill via the “cash back” function.

Why the money, when Presidio was otherwise business-less? Because we were about to cross the border to Ojinaga. And in Ojinaga, the mendacious flier promised us, we would find even better shopping.

Ojinaga

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Okay, this trip wasn’t just about indulging in a rampant consumption of “authentic artisanal crafts” with “Made in China” stickers on the bottom. It was also about spectre of The Border and the archetype of The Border Town. These things loom large in our cultural imagination, and I think it’s very important to see things like that IRL, to see as much as you can, no matter how far removed it all seems from your regular life, no matter how many miles away your real home happens to be.

The border itself was like something out of a dystopian novel. Looking at it—the military green uniforms, the huge white buildings, the mysterious “under-construction” structures that seemed destined for strange and foreboding purposes—you really got the sense of the magnitude of the State, the cruel, cold efficiency of Law, and the pointless stagnancy of Bureaucracy. The soldiers seemed . . . well . . . overdressed. I felt odd about the ease with which we whipped across the line.

Where Presidio was dead, Ojinaga was alive. I’ll give it that. But the town was confusing, sprawling, full of dead ends that spilled out into gravel pits. It was stuck in the hot humid gunk of transience that characterizes all things that live on the edge. Sure, there were schools, and stores, and men selling hammocks by the side of the street. My favorite part was the graveyard—festive with color, bleak with wire fencing. But you got the sense that people didn’t want to live there, that they were coming or going (or unable to come and go, trapped under the great black boot of the American Border Patrol).

The above paragraphs demonstrate a fallacy: my tendency to filter my experience of things through my own preconceived ideas of them. Is the Ojinaga/Presidio border actually foreboding? Are people in Ojinaga really stuck in a gunk of transience, waiting to cross over? Why is it so easy to convince yourself that you’re picking up on real human woe and boredom and despair? We all like to think we’re some beautiful empathetic channeler of pain, quivering like a dowsing rod, so tuned in to the agony of the world that by simply glancing at a colorful graveyard we feel—nay, we TASTE—the pain of a thousand border crossings, THE AGONY OF IMPERMANENCE, THE VERY CLASH OF NATIONS THEMSELVES!

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Getting back across the border was characterized by a flurry of confusion. We had to pay $1.50 to get back into the States (an oddly petty fee) and only had our infamous $50 bill on us—and the people at the border toll simply didn’t have any change. We looked at them in disbelief as they told us to make a u-turn and go back into town and buy something to break up that albatross of a $50. So we went spinning back into the streets of Ojinaga, where Charlie sidled up to a currency exchange and I bought three beaded bracelets from a woman who had given us directions earlier. Then there was some waiting in traffic, some brief and disinterested questioning about our citizenship, and we were across.

Big Bend State Park

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The Rio Grande is muddy and slow. The road snakes alongside it, mimicking its curves. We curved along the road. I looked for falling rocks, since the signage implied that there was a 75% chance we’d die that day under a rock fall. We got out to look at the hoodoos—rock columns that have been eroded on the bottom, so that the rocks appear to balance on top. Two women were taking a selfie. I thought about offering to take their photo, knowing how often I wish someone would offer the same to me and Charlie. But I didn’t. I was feeling awkward, sensitive to other humans, content just to nestle against Charlie and look at the mushroom-shaped rocks.

Later, I broke the law of the park by filching a purple rock, studded with crystals. In my defense, the rock was already sitting on the road. The next semi truck would have crushed it. You could say I saved it. You could say I was truly a Good Person in that moment. Couldn’t you?

Terlingua Ghost Town

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If you want to commune with the ghosts in Terlingua, I have a recommendation: meet them in the cemetery just before a rainstorm, when the wind is making the milagros rattle against the hand-hewn wooden crosses.

It wasn’t raining when we got there. We scrambled into the incongruous gift shop (no ghosts there) where we snagged a map of the tiny town, put a dollar in the “suggested donation” box, and set out to explore Terlingua on foot. The sun was brutal.

Terlingua used to be a mercury mining town, and now it’s mostly laying in beautiful ruins. The town seems sensitive about mercury poisoning and insists that very few people actually died of it, despite the size of the graveyard. My favorite ruined building was the former house of a very rich man, which was tall and thin and gorgeous (the house, not the man), and is now half-hotel, half-ruins. I’m sure the insurance company has a field day with that. The windows on the top of the house were built purposefully narrow, to protect the house against Pancho Villa. How these narrow windows protected the inhabitants against Villa was unclear to me. Less glass, less chance that a bullet is going to fly through a window and snuff ya out? See, I would want big windows, massive windows—not just because I love natural light, but because I want to see my enemy coming.

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The church was also beautiful, and seemed to be still in use. But it was so hot and humid and airless that we moved around slowly, dripping sweat. I liked these little pictures that narrated the walk to the cross. I know other people would find them cheesy, or tasteless, but somehow they managed to strike me as very sorrowful—perhaps because they were so small, and tacked so high to the wall.

Residents

In the ghost town, as we were staring at what looked like an abandoned movie theater (but was actually a functioning restaurant housed inside an abandoned movie theater), a man in his 70s asked us if we were enjoying Terlingua. He was wearing a shirt that said “My Indian Name is Runs-With-Beer.”

“Where are you from?” he asked.

“We’re living in Marfa this summer, then Chicago in the fall,” I said.

“I hate both those places,” he replied.

I laughed and didn’t say anything.

“Okay, Marfa has like three cool things about it. But this place has eighty thousand cool things about it.”

He told us that his house was the one with the rock sculptures around it. “Are you an artist?” I asked.

“No!” he scoffed. I really dug his denial.

The residents of Terlingua have a vague truther vibe. You have to be a little bit cracked to reject the venerated cultural capital of Chicago and Marfa and settle among ghosts in one of the most striking and desolate parts of the world. I think it’s admirable. The town’s population is, like, 50 people.

Police

Our stint with the border patrol was far from over. At night, on our way back to Marfa, speeding down some lonely and flat highway, we were waved into a border patrol checkpoint. A huge drug dog with a manic look in his eyes smelled the wheels of Charlie’s car and gave some mysterious signal to his handler who gave another mysterious signal to the man who was interviewing us who, in turn, informed us that our car had drugs inside it.

No, we said.

They looked at us sternly. “It will be so much easier for you if you’re honest with us,” they said.

We speculated afterward, racing away in our drug-free car, that they were bored, that they had a long night to kill, and that the dog was just hyped up on all the human attention.

It’s hard to know what to take away from that interaction, as it is with most things in life. There were five of us: two men, the dog, me, my husband. Who was just doing their job? Who overreacted? Who tried too hard to be right? Who could have tried harder to be kind? Under the fluorescent lights, in the Texas night air, we were all looking warily into each other’s eyes, trying to read the situation, wondering how real it all was, striving to calm our animal selves as the beautiful mad dog leaped around, panting, confused, happy to be alive.