“The interloper” redux

In 2011 I published a story on this site called “The interloper”. In it, a teenaged girl named Jessie falls in love with her best friend Sarah. They eventually break up when Sarah can no longer take the pressure of being queer in high school. Sarah gives Jessie a box of the notes they’ve exchanged and asks her to destroy it. The story starts like this:

Dealing with the shoebox was the hardest thing Jessie had ever done. For two days now it had been an unwelcome presence under her bed; she could barely sleep with it there. Every time she remembered it, something twisted inside her gut and she felt like fleeing out the back door, into the snowy woods. Disappearing. So the box had to go.

Lifting the lid, she thought back to earlier in the week, when Sarah had given it to her, held it out with a mixture of care and aversion, like it might explode at any moment.

“Jess, I need you to take this. Get rid of it.”


The box contained every scrap of correspondence that Jessie had ever given Sarah. Their notes started out as goofy exchanges during the one class they had together. Then, as they became best friends, the notes proliferated with the devotional ethic unique to religious fanatics and teenage girls, passed in the hallway between class periods, so that they never went more than fifty-one minutes without communicating. As their bond deepened into an ardent, desperate, confusing thing, dependent on secrecy and denial, most of their declarations of love remained unspoken, articulated only in private writing. Jessie often labored the night before on letters to deliver to Sarah in the morning. She drew sketches, cut funny cartoons out of the paper, made mix tapes, all in an effort to surprise and delight that beautiful miracle of a girl. So it accumulated, until more than a year of their relationship lay chronicled in the box⎯hundreds of missives. Some of the notes looked soft and frayed, like they had been unfolded and reread daily.

Jess struggles with the pain and heartbreak of having all her feelings handed back to her so suddenly. She spends the better part of an afternoon sitting in front of the wood stove, remembering her life with Sarah and trying to gather the courage to feed the box into the flames. For Jess, in those moments, “life seemed impossible.”

Although I didn’t say so at the time, several readers astutely realized that this story was one hundred percent true. It happened to me when I was sixteen. For two decades I carried the anguish of that day with me. Everyone endures the loss of a first love, but something about watching that box of paper burn felt especially devastating. In all those years, I think I told only one person the story.

Who can say why I decided to share it on The Great Whatsit? Maybe the story was a burden I finally felt ready to put down. Maybe it was experiencing the strange reminder of “Sarah” that came to me that summer. Maybe, in our little community of readers and writers that had grown out of my closest and oldest friends, I felt safe. After all, I had insulated myself with two levels of anonymity (“Jessie” is clearly a pseudonym, but “Berkowitz” is, too). When we started this site, I was a brand-new, untenured professor in a new city, unsure of how to comport my personal and professional selves online. I felt the need to distance myself from these kinds of disclosures. It seems naive to say, but I really wasn’t thinking that by telling it here, I made the story available for literally anyone on the planet to read.

Why bring this up now? Here’s the thing: last night I watched the season premiere of Grey’s Anatomy. The episode’s main plot concerns two teenaged girls who are brought into the ER with catastrophic injuries. It soon emerges that the girls, in love and unable to face the threat of their families’ rejection, had forged a grisly suicide pact and stepped in front of a moving train. One of them explains the relationship to her surgeon:

“We liked to pass notes in school…the kind that you fold a million different ways. I kept them, every single one, in a box under my bed, so I could reread them when I had bad days.”

Picture me sitting there in front of the TV. At this point, the blood’s rushing in my ears. I am practically having an out-of-body experience. I am forty-two years old and watching my words come out of someone else’s mouth onscreen. Then the penny drops: the catalyst for the suicide attempt is when the girl’s mother finds the box of notes under the bed and…burns them in the fireplace.

The girl’s name? Jess.

So, you tell me. Am I nuts? Can this possibly be a coincidence? Or did Stacy McKee, the author of this episode, come across my story and lift its details for her script?

I feel weirdly violated, but why? Do I have ownership of this story now that I basically gave it away? Do I have any sort of reasonable expectation of privacy? Do I deserve some sort of acknowledgment for having written it in the first place? My gut says yes to all these questions, but common sense (and probably the law) says no.

It’s not even the first time this has happened. In college I told a classmate a story from my childhood about the time my mom dated a guy known among their mutual friends as Crazy Eddie. I remember two things about the summer I was seven. First, Crazy Eddie had the most amazing shower curtain, clear plastic printed with a collage of black and white photos of naked ladies. Whenever I had to pee, I couldn’t tear my eyes away from it. Second, Eddie had a kid named Will. Naturally, our parents expected us to play and get along. Will flatly told me that he could NOT be seen at the playground with a little white girl. There was nothing to be done about my being white, but at least he could turn me into a boy. So every time we went out, he dressed me in one of his t-shirts, shoved my hair under a baseball cap, and introduced me as “Ray.” Between the naked lady shower curtain (to this day seared on my eyelids) and the male alter ego, it was a very confusing summer.

One day we show up to my college fiction-writing workshop and–you guessed it!–it’s all there in my classmate’s story. Crazy Eddie. The shower curtain. The little white girl on the black boys’ playground. I was incensed, but everyone agreed that by telling the story, I had set it loose in the world like pollen, and could not control where it would drift or on whose land it would germinate. I relate it here without compunction, because I lost that story a long time ago. But the one with the shoebox? That loss still feels fresh.

The idea for The Great Whatsit as a collaborative blog hatched at a New Year’s party ten years ago. For nearly a decade, a rotating schedule of authors posted new content every weekday. Boy, did we have fun while it lasted. But over time, the friendships spread out, our enthusiasms and conversations migrated over to social media, and the site seemed to die a natural death.

Me? I never did figure out how to live as an online entity. How much sharing is too much? What degree of privacy should I freely surrender? Am I willing to let my memories boil down to what can be accessed with a Google search? I have no Facebook, no Twitter, no Pinterest, no Instagram. As such, I have no direct way to reach out to Stacy McKee (the Grey’s Anatomy writer), Sara Ramirez (the cast member and activist who so clearly championed a storyline featuring LGBT youth), or Shonda Rhimes (the show’s creator). But if some of you are inclined to do so, please send them this link and tell them thanks…I guess. For putting the story to good use. For creating a prime-time depiction of a teenage lesbian in love–a depiction that I’d have desperately clung to when I was her. For letting that girl, against all odds, survive.

Half way to 90

Half way to ninety: Happy birthday Bryan! from seroquel on 8tracks Radio.

I got this mix from Farrell for my birthday (which went down last week, if you weren’t paying attention or weren’t aware; Steph’s went down on the 30th). It’s too good not to share.

Also, noted: I’m pretty sure that in this photo we were more or less half way to 45. I suppose that means I’ve been getting mixes from this guy (and from some of you too) for more than half my life. #blessed

Hipster Martha Stewart: Uncanny plant/animal hybrid for your bathroom wall

“Well, the blog is finally gone,” says Parrish.

“Gone; done,” says I. We sip our Scotch in memory of blog posts of yore.

And yet. Wrestling with words and abstract concepts all day, a body’s got to have hobbies. One of my current ones appears to be PLANTS! And today’s plant cried out, not literally, for TGW treatment. So hereinafter: how to plant a staghorn fern on your bathroom wall.

The important thing about staghorn ferns is that they’re epiphytes, meaning they don’t need to root in soil. I bought one last weekend at the hipster plant store on Solano, after not seeing them many other places for sale. It came rooted in soil in a little pot. But I wanted it mounted on the wall.

That is the even more important thing about staghorn ferns–they look like animals, kind of. Like a stag’s horns, I guess, but more ancient and vegetal. So of course hipsters* mount them on walls.

First thing, I needed a good piece of wood. Found one at my favorite artisanal wood store for only $2, the humblest piece of wood in the place. I think it’s pine, salvaged from a barrel or something, and it was $2 because it was a scrap left over from something else. About 12 inches square, I’d say, and an inch and a half thick. I sanded it roughly to clean up some kind of paint or mineral residue. Ended up looking interesting.

If you’re going to mount something on the wall, install the wall-hooking part first. Here, two hex screws with hanging wire between, on the back:

Hanging stuff

A close up:


I put some floor-protector stickies on the hex ends to keep them from messing up the wall when I hang it up.

Then you need to prepare the front of the board. I used some brass twisting nails (they have a kind of slow screw carved into them to keep them from coming back out, I guess) in a hexagram arrangement:


Then you get your sphagnum moss. Sphagnum moss is sold in quantities no smaller than quarter bushel; mine came in a big dried cube shape that reminded me very much of local news stories about the cops seizing bales of pot and setting it all on fire. When I asked if they had smaller bags of it, the plant-store lady suggested I use the rest to make terrariums for Christmas gifts. “Or birthdays. Or other holidays,” she said. This is why people start selling crap on Etsy; it is because they tried to buy the minimum quantity of sphagnum moss.

No pictures of the moss-laying process because it was wet. You take your sphagnum moss. (Seriously, I own a lot of sphagnum moss now. I will send you some if you want.) You slice a bit off the giant cube, soak it in water, then wring it out so it’s damp.

Then you have to get the soil off the roots of your stagshead fern. This was the most annoying part, and it felt so wasteful as I ran water over the roots to wash off the soil that I actually put a bowl in the sink and caught the water and then poured it on our other plants out on the deck. That is how California I am these days.

With the roots mostly free from soil, you kind of layer the moss and the roots into something that strikes you as plausible. Then, run fishing line or threat over the moss/root clump to each nail, back and forth in a web, until you think it’s good.

Behold, now a weird creature lives on your wall:

Staghorn fern on my bathroom wall

Like I said, pretty cool looking, slightly terrifying. The best part is now my bathroom smells a little like some exotic forest, or at least like a sphagnum moss farm.

*A category that is almost meaningless, as I’ve probably yakked about before. However, I think “hipster Martha Stewart” does have some content to it.

Already gone

I’m nearing the end of my fourth time teaching a NYUAD Core course called “Contagion,” in our gen ed category “Pathways to World Literature.” You can find the full syllabus here. Our final novel is Colson Whitehead’s Zone One. I had to post about it on my course’s blog, since my students have all taken an even number of turns blogging and now we’re at the end of the semester. I figured I’d get double mileage out of the post (which is already recycled from a past year) by reposting it here. Who’s read the book? Pipe up. The book always makes me miss Manhattan, since much of it takes place in neighborhoods I lived in during our first 12 years there.

Whitehead, in the clip above, namechecks a useful list of zombie flicks and post-apocalyptic scenarios set in New York that hover in the margins of Zone One. But his zombies have more mundane counterparts in the contemporary city. “It’s not hard for New Yorkers to picture zombies,” Whitehead is quoted in the Time post that accompanies the video. “You take the subway, you go to Whole Foods, and you’ve got a series of stock characters to draw from.”

The novel opens with a 21-page sequence that toggles between Mark Spitz’s memories of just such a pre-apocalypse Manhattan, flashbacks to “Last Night” and the early days of “the ruin,” and a present-day scenario in which Spitz and his crew battle four zombies inhabiting the Human Resources department of what had been a law firm in lower Manhattan. The action sequence at this stage is a little hum-drum for a zombie novel and only crops up intermittently between Spitz’s lyrical longing for a bygone era that, somewhat paradoxically, he seems to have loathed. (Maybe this is why the novel begins with an even earlier memory of an innocent childhood longing to live in Manhattan; in any case, Spitz’s thoughts seem to drift regularly. “The man gets distracted,” his co-worker Gary comments [26].) We learn early in this opening sequence that post-apocalyptic “reconstruction,” with a government centered in Buffalo, has already “progressed so far that clock-watching ha[s] returned,” and Spitz, who works as a zombie “sweeper” reclaiming city blocks one by one, finds the work a little boring. The pun on zombies working in Human Resources is only half the joke; Spitz — now a janitor of the undead — was destined to be a lawyer, and here he is, practically punching the clock.

Whitehead’s zombies are a special sort. Sure, there are some fierce ones — the skels — who’ll gladly pin you down and suck your brains out. But the more common kind, the “stragglers,” are the ones who resemble the folks in the Whole Foods lines, or maybe their country cousins at Walmart. These are the ones who just keep going to work, stuck in daily rituals of workplace productivity: “The former shrink, plague-blind, sat in her requisite lounge chair, feet up on the ottoman, blank attentive face waiting for the patient who was late, ever late, and unpacking the reasons for this would consume a large portion of a session that would never occur” (49).

As Gary also points out, the line between those “killed in the disaster” and “those who had been turned into vehicles of the plague” is thin at best. Either way the went, “they had been honed and trained so thoroughly by that extinguished world that they were doomed in this new one” (25). They were already zombies, in other words.

I’m reminded whenever I think about Zone One of an op-ed, written by Amy Wilentz, a UC-Irvine journalism prof, that ran in the New York Times around Halloween a few years ago. It had to do with the origins of zombies in the context of New World slavery — a different, but related, kind of zombie economy. Some highlights:

Most people think of [zombies] as the walking dead, a being without a soul or someone with no free will. This is true. But the zombie is not an alien enemy who’s been CGI-ed by Hollywood. He is a New World phenomenon that arose from the mixture of old African religious beliefs and the pain of slavery, especially the notoriously merciless and coldblooded slavery of French-run, pre-independence Haiti. In Africa, a dying person’s soul might be stolen and stoppered up in a ritual bottle for later use. But the full-blown zombie was a very logical offspring of New World slavery.

Wilentz asks, near the end of her piece, why we see such a resurgence of zombies in popular culture in recent years (at least in Europe and the US) and offers this explanation:

Of course, the zombie is scary in a primordial way, but in a modern way, too. He’s the living dead, but he’s also the inanimate animated, the robot of industrial dystopias. He’s great for fascism: one recent zombie movie (and there have been many) was called “The Fourth Reich.” The zombie is devoid of consciousness and therefore unable to critique the system that has entrapped him. He’s labor without grievance. He works free and never goes on strike. You don’t have to feed him much. He’s a Foxconn worker in China; a maquiladora seamstress in Guatemala; a citizen of North Korea; he’s the man, surely in the throes of psychosis and under the thrall of extreme poverty, who, years ago, during an interview, told me he believed he had once been a zombie himself.

It would be interesting to put Wilentz’s argument in conversation with the sense we get from Whitehead’s novel that corporate capitalism — the legacy and perpetuator, in many ways, of the slave trade that fueled the first global economy — can’t help but be a zombie-making machine.

How does Zone One‘s social satire of our own post-Fordist economy stack up against earlier plague narratives we’ve read in the course? In certainly seems related to Camus’ indictment of bureaucracy. But one of our earliest discussions about zombies takes place when we read Daniel Defoe; to see why, check this essay on Defoe and zombie films.

Or consider this piece from Lapham’s Quarterly, which argues that Zone One‘s version of zombie apocalypse owes as much to Defoe as it does to Dawn of the Dead:

What A Journal of the Plague Year doesn’t have is zombies—at least not explicitly. Still, the numberless, suppurating victims are apt to behave like the undead at every turn, crowding the novel with “walking putrefied carcasses, whose breath was infectious and sweat poison.” These abject and degenerating bodies, disfigured by the “tokens” of disease that look like “small Knobs…of callous or Horn,” can turn on others, even running through the streets actively seeking to infect people impressed “with a kind of Rage, and a hatred against their own Kind,” as if the sickness itself were filled with an “evil Will” determined “to communicate it self.” Thus babies kill their mothers, and men tackle women in the street hoping to infect them with a deadly kiss. Others manage to dodge the disease, only to be disfigured by the weight of madness or grief.

Granted, there is none of the urgent panic attendant on hacking one’s way through a shambling horde only to turn around and see the second wave. This lends the novel a kind of studious detachment as H.F. traverses the city in an effort to comprehend the scope of the visitation through a process of quantification and statistical computation—tallying the bills of mortality, measuring the size of the municipal grave pits, and delineating the necrotic geography of ravaged neighborhoods. …

Ultimately, as with all these narratives, the real plague is modern life. Physicians trace the disease to a package of silks imported from Holland that originated in the Levant, spreading the infection through the ports, mills, marketplaces and manufactories that form the early-modern economy. Quarantines and barricades prove useless against the commodity’s voyage; but while the products themselves may be infectious, it’s the appetite to possess them that truly kills. In this, A Journal of the Plague Year presages the lurching mallrats of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, who continue the puppetry of consumption into the undead afterlife, a theme that is similarly taken up in … Zone One, where the post-apocalyptic reconstruction of New York provides opportunities for branding and product placement, and where the “Ambassadors of nil” evoke nothing so hellish as Times Square tourists, boring girlfriends, and the hollow communications of sitcoms and social media.

What’s left out of this analysis? This longish review of Zone One places the novel indirectly in the kind of context Wilentz invokes by addressing what the novel does — and doesn’t — say about the history of race in America, or in Manhattan specifically. A lot of class time will be spent on the novel’s commentary on nostalgia as a driver of capitalist consumption, but what attaches that through-line to the sublimated discussion of race in America? Maybe the Time clip above offers some answers. Like Whitehead, Spitz had “always wanted to live in New York” because of romantic attachments borne of movies and other media, and when one character asks him his post-plague plans are, he answers: “Move to the city.” How different is Spitz from the hordes he’s hired to clean up? How different is he from you?

#RIP Peaches

Our dear old Peaches finished his life today.