I Am a Journalist

Just before reaching Aberdeen’s beach, I feel the temperature drop about ten degrees as a cold front rushes in. There is an even ceiling of dark cloud, and even though I know it will rain soon I keep walking. I know I’m close to the sea because there are no more buildings obscuring the horizon. The only thing that blocks my direct view is a low grassy embankment in front of me. I hurry up and over, and in an instant I see the entire oceanscape in descending order.

The clouds cease abruptly at the distant horizon, which is punctuated by a dozen massive industrial ships. They rest in the vast blue expanse that stretches towards me for miles until its form and color are interrupted by waves. The border between water and earth is less defined than that between air and water: the waves advance, mix with the sand, and recede. The last thing I see as I reach the top of the embankment is the empty boardwalk right below me.

It was a simple but exhilarating moment. I pull out my notebook, set it on the railing, and try to register the scene in greater detail. There is a steady, gust-less wind. Strangely, I feel it but don’t hear it. I do hear a couple of seagulls in the distance. The waves are loud enough to drown out the sounds of the city, but they’re still gentle. Regular and rhythmic, the noise gradually crescendos as each wave reaches different parts of the shoreline at different times. I see few people.

The MacHalpin family is the only group at the beach today. I know their name because Mr. MacHalpin has written it in giant letters in the sand. Dad and the two boys flirt with the incoming waves, while Mrs. MacHalpin and her baby girl work on a sand castle from a safe distance. Mr. MacHalpin adds a “2015.” This confuses me, as if he believes his sandy autograph will last until at least 2016 when in all likelihood it will be erased by the coming rain and tide in an hour.

As a little sprinkle starts to fall they begin to pack up their belongings. They notice me writing and Mr. MacHalpin yells affably in that wonderful accent:

“Are you journaling about us?”

I have been exposed. It’s only now that I realize how absolutely conspicuous I look: the only other person at the beach, standing on the pier fifteen feet above them, looking down and writing. There is of course nothing else I could possibly be doing.

“Yeah, kind of,” I return, conscious of how American that sounded.

“Are you a journalist or are you just taking notes? Are we going to end up on the front page tomorrow?” Mrs. MacHalpin jokes.

It is good that they think I’m a journalist and not a voyeur.

“No no, just taking notes,” I laugh.

There is a hint of hopefulness in her questions, a hint of flattery at the thought of having done something newsworthy.

The rain falls down harder on my notebook, the MacHalpins move for cover, and I start to leave. After a few steps I turn back. I take a photo to document the moment, before walking away towards the train station. 

 

Vestiges of Intimacy

 

There is a collection of objects inside a Louis Vuitton box, in a suitcase, under a coffee table, at my friend’s apartment, in Chambéry, France. We discover it one night while talking in the living room after dinner.

Hey, have you ever opened that thing?

Nope, let’s see what’s inside!

Someone else’s artifacts are inside. They belong, or belonged, to a young man named Yu Zhang, a previous tenant. These are the remnants of a former life:

-A handwritten contact list of Chinese phone numbers (hastily scrawled and marked by coffee stains)

-Yu’s social security and student cards

-An unused notebook

-A booklet on How to Write C.V. and Covering [sic] Letters

-The Bible in Mandarin (while looking at its pages uncomprehendingly I’m struck for the first time by the beauty of the characters)

-A Catholic catechism in French

-A hymnal in Mandarin

-A new testament in French

-An illustrated Jehovah’s Witness Bible in Mandarin

-A bulletin from a service at the Chambéry cathedral dated 1-18-2009

-An old Wi-Fi router

-Romantic correspondence in Mandarin between Yu and a Chinese girl (all letters are addressed using the western nicknames of Nicholas and Rosaline, respectively. Those from Rosaline are written in glitter gel pen, with many exclamation marks and hearts. One letter says Happy Birthday in French. Two of the letters have locks of hair attached to them with scotch tape)

-Many 5x8 photos of a girl (presumably Rosaline)

-Tickets to Gran Torino from 2008

-A tourist map of Geneva from 2008

-Photos of a man (presumably Nicholas) holding up signs in front of different landmarks in Chambéry

-L’Amour à Rome, by Pierre Grimal

-A receipt from O’Cardinals (the most popular pub in town)

-A dozen very small photos of the couple (with adhesive backing)

-Thirteen train tickets to Annecy

-Regional postcards (largely from Annecy)

-A copy of La Demoiselle d’Honneur from 1924

We pore over the mementos with voyeuristic delight, trying to reconstruct the mysterious narrative. I think about little else over the following days. My roommate, Xiao, helps me translate one of the letters. It is long and wandering. Rosaline talks of the dress Nicholas got her for Christmas, imagines what they’ll do when he returns to Tianjin, and scolds him for eating only noodles. The attached hair is from Rosaline’s wig (her hair was short and she was wearing a wig until it grew out longer). The letter concludes with a poem, which is a challenge for Xiao to translate:

For He Who is Mine

This day last year I will always remember

The memory, flying invisibly beside me.

Green ocean, blue sky, whispering stream doesn’t stop

Flowing into our hearts.

I’ve dreamt about a wonderland with a handsome prince

His face frequently appeared in front of me

He nods with a smile

Instantly the happiness envelops me in its arms.

A long time waiting suddenly becomes

The happiness of being reunited.

I believe deeply that man is

The one I could spend my life with.

A year later we’re separated by the ocean.

Missing you never ends, without you I will die.

Because of you the sky is blue.

The short separation is for the longer union.

When you return

We will never separate again.

From these scraps of life I piece together the story of Nicholas and Rosaline. Nicholas grew up in Tianjin, the middle-class son of stern parents. He placed well enough in exams to qualify for an exchange program. Nicholas already knew English quite well, but he wanted to learn a second language so he studied French and business at the University of Savoy during the fall of 2008 and the spring of 2009.

Nicholas left the woman he loved in China to learn and explore the world. Rosaline needed to talk more often than he did. They chatted daily using MSN and exchanged letters frequently. With the money she saved from her job at the astronomy museum, and with the help of her parents, she visited Nicholas in Chambéry during his Christmas break.

They were together again, in the same time zone, in a synchronized life. They shared two weeks of bliss. They shared their first kiss, finally beyond the range of parental supervision. They shared a bed. The couple traveled around the region, but they fell in love with Annecy above all. It was there, walking beside the crystal alpine lake, the snowy mountains reflected back at them, that Nicholas said he thought he could spend the rest of his life with Rosaline. 

Their last night together was in Geneva for New Year’s Eve. They watched the fireworks from the roof of their hostel, still a little buzzed from all the wine.

Nicholas and Rosaline were silent during the long bus ride to the airport. Upon arrival, they only spoke in short sentences. There was a sadness welling up beneath the surface. It didn’t help that the departure process was so extended and indefinite. They checked in, walked over to security, and kissed. Usually Rosaline cried softly, but, as they stood there, her warm tears rocketed down her face and onto Nicholas’s hands. They kissed.

He waited as she shuffled through the security line. For the first time in two weeks, she was getting further away. It concentrated the moment: Nicholas could see her grow more and more distant, in little shuffled degrees. Step by step, Rosaline made her linear getaway. She avoided looking back; they could only bear to do so for an instant. She mouthed to him, I love you.

Over the next few months Nicholas went up to Annecy almost every weekend, alone. Whenever he missed Rosaline, whenever he needed to clear his head, he took the train up there just for the afternoon. He walked along the shore of the lake. He sat down on park benches for hours. He watched other couples.

As time went on, Nicholas slowly moved out of his social circle of Chinese students and made a greater effort to understand France. Western religion, for example, was alien to him. Some people handed out Gideon bibles on campus, and he sometimes visited churches. It was a kind of scientific inquiry to him. Even as Nicholas learned more and felt more at home in France, deep down he still considered himself an outsider—tethered to another country.

One of the letters in the box is addressed to Rosaline, maybe a draft. I translate it. It says something like:

Dear Rosaline I think of you when I see a couple kissing in public and when I open champagne and when I hear anyone talk about medicine and when I wake up and when I drink tea and when I go to bed and when I take the bus and when I walk home late at night alone and when I make my bed and when I try a new pastry and when I see a beautiful person and when I open my closet and see the purple towel that I bought just for your visit here and when I look at your picture on my desk and when I make a lot of soup just for myself and when I write and when people ask me what I miss most about home. I love you.

Nicholas considered staying in France after he finished studying, and he looked into potential jobs. There was, however, always one question in the back of his mind: how could he delay his reunion with Rosaline? How could he elect to stay apart even one day longer? Every day he thought of the small of her back, her one charmingly crooked tooth, and the way her eyes glimmered when they lay down beside one another. In the end the issue was moot: he couldn’t find a job, and he had to return to China due to visa issues.

One question still remains: why were all of these vestiges of intimacy left in a Louis Vuitton box, inside a suitcase, under a coffee table, at my friend’s apartment, in Chambéry, France? Maybe their love dissolved in distance and time. Maybe he knew the exact moment when he first said I love you and no longer meant it. Maybe it was like discovering flowers were fake when he tried to smell them. He simply left the remnants behind.

Or maybe the night before Nicholas left France he was still celebrating and saying his goodbyes early into the morning. In a haze of fatigue he packed his bags, collecting the life he had distributed throughout the apartment. In his disarray, he missed the old Louis Vuitton box full of keepsakes. A few days later the roommates found it and placed it with the rest of Nicholas’s forgotten knick-knacks. They threw it all in a suitcase that was abandoned by a different Chinese exchange student the year before, and relegated it all to the growing collection of miscellany under the futon to be reorganized intermittently and eventually discovered by us one night after making chicken noodle soup. Maybe now whenever Nicholas looks through all of the souvenirs of their relationship that he collected before and since France, he can’t help but think of the ones he lost. Maybe he senses the absence of evidence, that section of life, as if he were missing part of his own body. 

Life and Death on the Lower Pecos River

 

I killed an enormous carp on my first river trip. With a spear I chased her from one patch of reeds to the next: finding her, losing her, finding her, missing her. She retreated back into the muddy roots, lurking. Eventually the carp fled down a small rapid. I got out of the water to search along the bank, disheartened. Just before resigning, the sun setting, I spotted her in a shallow pool near the shore. The refraction of the dying light skewed my aim, and only one prong managed to pierce through; I struggled to hold her as I waded excitedly back to the campsite. Cleaning it was messy and all we had to fry it with was old Italian dressing. As I chewed on the rubbery meat, the taste of victory more than compensated.

I’ve killed billions of microbes, boiling them as I purified cooking water. Their bodies heated slowly, proteins denatured, and insides diffused. I consumed their lifeless husks along with the couscous.

I don’t know if I killed the turtle. A companion speared it in the leg by accident, so we decided to make turtle soup. It was still alive. Wanting to keep it fresh through the long distance to our campsite, we tied it to the front of my kayak, upside down. The turtle struggled periodically, its nails scratching the plastic boat in spasms. At camp, just above a calm pool, I tried to crack its sturdy shell with a large rock. A misplaced blow jettisoned the unresponsive turtle into the river. I dove in and searched for over half an hour, but with no luck. Maybe I glanced over it amongst the rocks and debris on the riverbed, maybe it floated downstream, or maybe it reanimated and writhed away, fighting to keep its shell and insides together.

The boar did not kill me, though I feared it would, as I scrambled up the dry creek bed. While exploring up the tributary with campers, at the head of the group, I saw the bristly mother with her bristly piglet. I stopped silently, raised my hand silently. A camper behind me noticed neither signal, and instead cried out when she saw the boars. An instant of fear seized my body, my forearm hair raised, and then the pair scampered off.

I killed another large carp on a subsequent trip, but, finding no one willing to clean it and having no desire to go through the trouble myself, I pried it off of my spear and threw the lifeless thing back into the river. 

I killed two white bass and three catfish, illegally. Spearing on the Pecos is only allowed for carp and gar, invasive fish, but it being my last river trip I wanted good food and good memories. The cooked meat melted on our tongues. No one asked any questions, and I told them nothing.

The wild horse did not kill me either, though I feared it would. On the shore, I awoke in my kayak to the stars and heavy breath on my face. Through a somnolent haze I realized its presence and shouted it away. The horse trotted off indignantly. 

I’ve killed billions of microbes, in the ritual purification of drinking water. Two drops of sodium hypochlorite per liter: the toxins disperse in the liquid, the bacteria breathe its pollution like gas, and exterminated microbial corpses pile up in the chamber of the water bottle—their chambers, in turn, emptied. I consumed their lifeless husks.

Nothing killed anything as I lay in my sleeping bag, surveying the light-speckled sky, listening to the chorus of mating calls from dozens of different species. It seems as if some things in the universe, at least, are still in order—be fruitful and multiply. 

Ferguson Ruling: A Collage

The following is a collage attempting to capture and interpret the range of voices surrounding the recent Ferguson grand jury decision on November 24, 2014. Fragments of news, social media, and commentary have been stripped of their context and purposefully rearranged. None of it is my writing. 


Throughout the community there’s a tension, something on the horizon that you feel everywhere you go.

8:25 PM Central Time 11/24/2014

Well, this sucks.

What's done is done, now do what you gotta do, an angry woman yelled into a bullhorn. 

Outside the Ferguson Police Department, anger and disbelief rippled through the crowd after word came out that Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted for the killing of Michael Brown on August ninth.

I thought, Holy crap, are we going to have enough people to protect the businesses in our major corridors? I was assured we'd have plenty of law enforcement to handle those tasks. And we got overwhelmed and overrun.

At least 61 people were arrested, and at least 10 businesses were damaged or destroyed by fire. I hereby loot this 80" 4K TV in solemn memory of Michael Brown.

Probably much worse

Well, can’t say we didn’t see that coming. Probably the most obfuscating and self-serving speech I’ve heard in a while, though. Once again, as in every single other reaction and decision in this whole mess, tone deafness and seemingly blind levels of poor choices predominate. Sigh.

If you’re not from Missouri, I don’t want to read about what you think about St. Louis right now.

Thousands of people also protested in other US cities, from Los Angeles to New York.

I’m extremely proud of our justice system to come to the right decision and not indict Officer Wilson.

YOU'RE AFRAID TO EMPATHIZE WITH OTHER PEOPLE BECAUSE YOU DON'T WANT TO ADMIT THAT OUR WORLD IS AS A UGLY AS WE ALL HOPE IT ISN'T.

Let's not just make noise; let's make a difference.

If any of you somehow manage to have the kind of Thanksgiving where none of your relatives say anything mind-bogglingly racist and tone deaf this year, it will be CNN’s top story.

Sloshed Man: They won’t come out here. They’ll get shot!

Me: Twiddles thumbs, contemplates world peace, and that I am not going to argue with drunk people I don’t know, but still can’t hide my jerk face

Sloshed Man: Recognizes I am uncomfortable. Uhh I’m not a racist. I just…you know…so many of those black guys kill each other why do they care when it’s a white guy that does it?

Therefore, there's no use in spouting off hypothetical situations like, well where would Al Sharpton be if Darren Wilson had shot a young white man!? Because the answer to that question is: According to statistics, Darren Wilson is a lot less likely to have shot a white man in the first place.

Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Kendrec McDade, Oscar Grant, Sean Bell, Eric Garner, Jonathan Ferrell, Amanda Diallo, Kimani Gray, Kenneth Chamberlain, Trayvon Martin. This happens to much. [sic]

Brown, like thousands of other young black men, is crying out from his grave, saying, you all have to change this system.

I felt that another of those punches in my face could knock me out or worse, Wilson said. …I've already taken two to the face and I didn't think I wouldthe third one could be fatal if he hit me right.

I stand by Officer Darren Wilson.

Stop! Your ignorance is showing.

Justice was served. Injustice would be filing criminal charges with underwhelming evidence.

Don't tell me my life experiences aren't applicable in a discussion. That's like saying your still incomplete college education isn't applicable in a discussion.

It is much too easy to focus on the details of the MB case and be too concerned with Wilson's innocence or guilt rather than embracing and understanding our collective participation in a society that creates measurable disparities for African-Americans. This moment has only been a smaller incident in a long history of racial violence in this country that has lasted longer than the political institutions themselves. While I hope that my children and grandchildren will see reconciliation and racial parity, I have sincere doubts.

Enough is enough. Action speaks volumes.

Firefighters were at the scene, spraying down the Little Caesar's at 10:32 p.m.

I’m so disgusted by so much defacement of important and historical art around the city. All of the pictures I have seen repulse me. Not sending a good message to the people you want on your side, idiots. I hope this is not the beginning…

CNN's Sara Sidner was struck in the head with a rock as more rocks flew around her. Amid the looting and arson across Ferguson, some protesters demanded the media stop reporting on the events.

Firefighters had to pull out from the scenes because of numerous shots fired in the area.

Obviously there’s a smell of marijuana in the air.

We are getting ready to challenge the narrative.

In case you forgot, here are some reasons why STL rules: free stuff, the zoo, first waffle cone, the Arch, Birds, asking where they went to high school, hating where they went to high school, Mardi Gras, Rams, Lewis and Clark, Crown Candy, Main Street, Forest Park, jokes on Halloween, toasted ravs, Busch, NELLY, the Valley, gooey butter cake, Fast Eddies, Six Flags, the Hill, and good people.

No matter what people have said about us being violent, that's not what we are about, Moffitt said. We are not going to allow a repeat of the violence and damage that happened to this area in August.

He bought himself a .357 Magnum revolver to be ready.

Police had said that they deployed tear gas after they used smoke to attempt to disperse the crowd. Earlier they had said they did not use gas.

You lost me at Governor Nixon said.

Some protestors used milk to try to soothe the effects of the tear gas.

But the county prosecutor, Robert McCulloch, who is widely viewed in the minority community as being in the pockets of the police, made matters infinitely worse by handling this sensitive investigation in the worst possible way.

A system cannot fail those it was never meant to protect–W.E.B. Du Bois

Would be great if there was an online fundraiser for everyone who saw their livelihoods go up in flames tonight. I seriously doubt insurance claims will provide any coverage for the hourly workers.

Wait, so now we're saying there is injustice in being tried by a jury of our peers? Or is that the racist bit? And justice is burning, shooting, rioting and stealing? God bless murderers and thugs.

My heart brakes [sic] for my most favorite city in the entire world and the fire, EMS, police, children and citizens caught up in the middle. I pray one day people realize responding with violence doesn’t solve the problem but further perpetuates it. No matter your believes [sic] on the situation, I hope the family and friends of Michael Brown are able to grieve together and that St. Louis comes together as the wonderful city it is and works through this difficult time.

Friends and family at home, I love and miss you all. Please stay safe in all this unnecessary recklessness. My heart is in St. Louis and I pray for the brave officers and citizens affected by the selfish idiocracy [sic] and destruction that is the response to the grand jury decision.

Riot shaming is racism. If you engage in one, claim the other. Don't be a coward now.

The community has become more and more enraged. How do you say we hear your concerns if you haven’t made any changes at all? The mayor is still in place, the police chief is still in place. 

Belmar said as far as he knew, police did not fire shots, but there was plenty of gunfire in the area. He said he personally heard at least 150 shots.

There are patients in the ER that have been here since yesterday. And they’re taking up rooms so the waiting room is backed up… Twenty-five patients left without being seen last night, and they couldn’t be transferred because Barnes and Christian were full.

A peaceful protester was hit in the face with a broken piece of concrete.

This process is broken.

Three months from now, when it's no longer trendy, your personal #Ferguson will still be a Black city ran [sic] by White civic leaders and patrolled by officers who most likely don't live in the neighborhoods that they are paid to serve. Our schools will still be terrible with parents who don't volunteer. Our prison systems will still profit off unjustly imprisoning young black men and women for nonviolent crimes for which others manage to escape jail time. The small businesses will still be owned by people who don't invest in the community. And meanwhile, most of the community’s inhabitants will be solely concerned with the Presidential election and not local policies.

The message: shoot first, think later, and you can count on being exonerated.

Lol at anyone who thinks the cops are anything but a legally sanctioned street gang.

Hands up! Don’t shoot!

How many dead black men will it take for one white man to be indicted? Stay tuned…

If all this weren’t bad enough, Mr. McCulloch took a reckless approach to announcing the grand jury’s finding. After delaying the announcement all day, he finally made it late in the evening, when darkness had placed law enforcement agencies at a serious disadvantage as they tried to control the angry crowds that had been drawn into the streets by news that the verdict was coming. Mr. McCulloch’s announcement sounded more like a defense of Officer Wilson than a neutral summary of the facts that had led the grand jury to its conclusion.

Change is created through our voice, not the destruction of our community.

Be nice to my city. I like living here.

David Whitt lives just feet away from the shooting site and has been arming people with 200 cameras to get every police move on tape. He calls it his weapon.

Strength does not come with ease.

Shortly after 11:30 PM, a young man drove up to the police line in a parking lot on West Florissant Avenue and said he had been shot in the leg. He climbed out of his car, dazed and limping, and appeared to have a wound near one ankle. He at first refused medical treatment, saying he didn't want to leave his gray Ford Mustang. It's all I have, he said.

Human

This is the opening piece from a collection of non-fiction written for my senior seminar.


There is no better place to start than at the sacrum; there is no better place to begin than in transition. 

Skeletal transition: the sacrum is inherently liminal. The place where our column of strength and structure, the spine, ends. The place from which that hideous vestigial tail sprouts. 

The sacrum fixes and tapers the chain of osteo-discontinuity—it is the border between wholeness and apartness. In this it represents humanity well. 

I expressed my humanity early on, stealing from my best friends. Maybe even earlier, somewhere in the breast feeding and napping. As a child I faked being asleep—feeling patronized. 

More childhood: selling trading cards during recess, playing house with the girls, elementary school fist fights, in-school suspension, little league baseball (drawing circles in the outfield dirt), pinewood derby, September Eleventh, anger management counseling (feeling patronized), out-of-school suspension. 

The sacrum usually begins as five distinct vertebrae, and then it starts to fuse during adolescence. How do bones fuse? Slowly. Calcium building on calcium, gravity slowly binding in ultimacy. 

These vertebrae are fully fused by the early thirties. My sacrum cries out to me: Hurry, while there’s still time! Live! Write! As if the only way these words can escape me is through those tiny, lightless gaps. 

How can I know anything! My bones aren’t even anchored yet. This text is nothing but a collection of microcosms and macrocosms, fallacies of various degrees. But still, I urge you to continue, like we all do, and suspend your disbelief.

My humanity was characterized primarily by independence, or perceived independence. I am arrogant enough to believe this to be universal. We share the same image in our DNA. Thought, emotion, humor, digestion, bones—we’re not so different, you and I.

Is worship in our DNA as well? Why are we pre-disposed to so many forms of devotion? If we prize freedom, why are we so quick to submit ourselves to substances, infatuations, ideologies, frameworks?

I am from the suburb that always sleeps. Very rarely did the world interfere with my understanding of it, rarely inserting difficulty or struggle from the outside.

But from the inside, the sacrum. While in high school I was overweight and I bussed tables at a kitsch restaurant. As a sixteen year old—lower back pain! The sacrum, like all parts of the body, mysteriously prone to pathos of all sorts.

So misleading, pain that comes from a bone with such angelic wings. Symmetric and central, yet a bone so humble, bowing forward in contrition.

So expected, pain that comes from a web of such alien sinew and skeleton. Slick and shiny spider webs binding the sacrum to the ancient hips and the quivering muscles. How monstrous are my insides! 

From the inside, the paralysis of depression, misty sorrow. 

It’s a question of cognitive dissonance: why do we fall short of our own moral standards?

It’s a question of corporal assonance. I believe that Nature (and our nature) is ambiguous, but I will try to convince us both otherwise. 

How were the ancients so adept at nomenclature? Sacrum, sacred. Some believe this holy bone was named so because it was offered in pagan sacrifice: it is the support of reproductive organs—the tangible lifeness. They believed that the soul of man resides there. I agree with them. 

We humans are our bodies: holy and corrupt, beautiful and monstrous.