UPDATE: President Barack Obama has commuted the sentence of Chelsea Manning, which is now set to expire on May 17. The decision wasn’t a total surprise, as a White House spokesman had contrasted Manning’s situation with Edward Snowden, noting that Manning already has gone through the U.S. legal system and acknowledged her crimes. In all, Obama granted commutation of sentence to 209 individuals and pardons to 64 individuals.

President Barack Obama has less than a week left to make at least some small amends for his administration’s war on government whistleblowers. And right now, across the broad spectrum of social media, members of the public and the media are specifically requesting that Chelsea Manning be granted presidential clemency. This renewed attention — which sprang from Twitter in the form of various hashtags including #FreeChelseaNow and #HugsFor Chelsea, as well as via myriad op-eds penned by the likes of Colonel Morris D.Davis, journalist and lawyer Glenn Greenwald, and Chelsea Manning herself — all has to do with the fact that Obama’s tenure in office will come to a close in three days — possibly taking it with the former Army intelligence analyst’s chances of freedom if he doesn’t act now. Manning was arrested in 2010 for leaking U.S. diplomatic cables to WikiLeaks. Two years later, she plead guilty to 10 of the 22 charges against her, some of which included violations of Articles 92 and 134 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), and of the Espionage Act. On Aug. 21, 2013, she was sentenced to 35 years in prison — the longest sentence ever imposed for disclosing government secrets.

At the time, Chelsea was known as Bradley Manning. On August 22, 2013 — the day after her sentencing — Manning’s then-attorney David Coombs issued a press release announcing that his client identifies as female, and asked that she be referred to by her new name of Chelsea and with feminine pronouns. Now at stake is the very real possibility that Manning may not be able to live as “the person she was born to be” — a turn of phrase she herself emphasized in a Nov. 18, 2016 public plea to President Barack Obama.

I reached out to Manning’s ACLU attorney, Chase Strangio, for his thoughts on what Manning’s life might be like should President Obama leave the former U.S. intelligence analyst’s fate to the whims of a Trump administration.

“She has already been through long periods of solitary confinement, been denied medically necessary care prescribed by her military doctors, and attempted suicide twice in the past six months,” Strangio told me. “Her access to treatment may be further jeopardized by the incoming administration and I fear for her well-being should any federal policies on access to health care for transgender people be revoked or changed.”

Strangio has good cause to be concerned. Though Manning was granted gender confirmation surgery in September 2016 as part of the U.S. military’s broader policy change that allows transgender servicemembers to serve openly and to receive coverage of their medical care, these protocols could potentially soon be overturned under President Donald Trump. In October, the president-elect vowed to review the military’s new policy on transgender service-members, calling it “a dangerous act of political correctness.” Furthermore, the man Trump nominated to be his national security advisor, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, alluded to the policy during his speech at the Republican National Convention last July, suggesting that it was “distracting the troops from their mission.”

“It would be a devastating blow to her if nothing happens at this point and she is left looking again at decades in prison —under possibly worse conditions.”

And, as Strangio mentioned, Manning has previously made two suicide attempts. After she first tried to end her life last July, the military responded by bringing additional charges against her for “resisting the force cell move team,” even though, as Strangio has claimed on numerous occasions to the media since, she was unconscious at the time. An Army board then decided to throw her into solitary confinement for her suicide attempt before she was able to appeal those charges — a response Strangio considered “demoralizing” and told the AP as much. He added that solitary confinement was an “assault on her health and humanity.” Indeed, once isolated Manning attempted suicide a second time. (I reached out to The United States Disciplinary Barracks for comment but the facility did not respond.)

There has been a slight glimmer of hope for Manning in recent weeks. On Jan. 11, NBC News reported that she is indeed on President Obama’s “short list” for sentence commutation after a petition with more than 100,000 signatures met the threshold for a White House response within 60 days. The American Civil Liberties Union and gay-rights groups have likewise been lobbying for a reprieve, citing Manning’s need for better medical care for gender dysphoria, a condition that includes severe distress or anxiety for some transgender individuals. While news of the “short list” elicited some excitement and hope from both the public and the media, the president has yet to officially make that a reality.

Now, as Strangio tells it, “Chelsea is taking everything in stride, but of course is nervous and it is impossible for her not to feel hopeful hearing the recent reports from the White House and DOJ officials. It would be a devastating blow to her if nothing happens at this point and she is left looking again at decades in prison — under possibly worse conditions.”

Several others have taken up Manning’s cause in the meantime, including whistleblower and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who agreed to be extradited from Ecuador to the United States to face possible espionage charges if POTUS pardons Manning.


Former National Security Agency (NSA) analyst Edward Snowden, too, has reached out to Obama’s administration on Manning’s behalf. Snowden, who has been in Russia since 2013, when he leaked classified information from the NSA revealing illegal U.S. mass surveillance, called on POTUS to grant Chelsea Manning clemency — even over himself. The particulars of Snowden’s case, however, are quite notably different than those of Manning’s. For one, Snowden is not in prison; two, his identity as a human being is not at immediate risk.


As was the case with the petition prompting the White House’s response, anyone interested in voicing their concerns about Manning’s fate can make a difference. To offer your help, call 202-353-1555 (DOJ comment line) and follow this simple script:

“Hi, I’m [NAME] from [STATE] and I’d like Chelsea Manning’s sentence to be commuted to time served.”

bustle photo.PNG

Image: Wikicommons/Abby Higgs

I guess I’m doing better these days. I can’t really tell, to be honest.

But the old pangs of ancient apartness haven’t been stinging me so hard. I suppose I have Zoloft to thank for that.

It occurred to me as I was walking home from work this afternoon that I was walking home from work this afternoon. Nothing more, nothing less. My mind was not preoccupied with the recent loss of a loved one, or with toying thoughts of what I would be doing if I had someone to whom I was walking home from work.

I was just walking home from work.

Of course, there’s Evan. He’s always here when I get home, cross-legged, watching movies on his bedroom floor because the cats have cordoned off his tiny twin bed for themselves.

The other morning he and I spoke at length about how we’ve resigned ourselves to being alone in our mid-thirties. Because it’s true – we’ve resigned ourselves. Given in. Which isn’t to say we’ve “given up”; rather, we just accept it.

And keep walking.

I suppose I have Zoloft to thank for that too.

Because the old pangs of ancient apartness aren’t here anymore to torture me with notions that I’ll always be alone, I’ll always be alone, I’ll always be alone.

I don’t think I could even conjure the pangs if I tried.

Again, I think I have Zoloft to thank for that.

The only problem that surfaces these days – and it does so more than I’m comfortable with, to be honest – is the thought that one morning I’ll wake up and think, “No, no, this is terrible too.”







“Letter to N.Y. (For Louis Crane)”

In your next letter I wish you’d say
where you are going and what you are doing;
how are the plays, and after the plays
what other pleasures you’re pursuing:

taking cabs in the middle of the night,
driving as if to save your soul
where the road goes round and round the park
and the meter glares like a moral owl,

and the trees look so queer and green
standing alone in big black caves
and suddenly you’re in a different place
where everything seems to happen in waves,

and most of the jokes you just can’t catch,
like dirty words rubbed off a slate,
and the songs are loud but somehow dim
and it gets so terribly late,

and coming out of the brownstone house
to the gray sidewalk, the watered street,
one side of the buildings rises with the sun
like a glistening field of wheat.

—Wheat, not oats, dear. I’m afraid
if it’s wheat it’s none of your sowing,
nevertheless I’d like to know
what you are doing and where you are going.

-Elizabeth Bishop

A brilliant list from Gabino Iglesias. Check it.


When I moved to Austin, I was surprised to learn that every guy and gal hanging out at a coffee shop was a novelist, every barista was sitting on a few truly outstanding, and unpublished, literary masterpieces, and everyone with a beard, a bike or a flowery skirt was either a great poet, the next Flannery O’Connor or the creator of the most amazing movie script in the history of scripts. It took me a week to figure out it was all bullshit. Then I learned that it’s even worse online. To help you figure it out faster, and to clarify things for all the “writers” out there, here’s a list of things that don’t make you a writer:

  1. Owning a laptop.
  2. Going to a coffee shop.
  3. Owning a cat.
  4. Putting the word author in your Twitter bio.
  5. Drinking/talking about/enjoying coffee.
  6. Living next to a university.
  7. Hanging out with writers.

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I felt glorious for four whole weeks–

imagining you and I on a canoe

a placid lake beneath us, a raging conversation between–

about the trees around us, the birds mimicking each other

about Minute Men and mercenaries

about why Melville rewrote “Moby Dick” after he met Hawthorne

that’s what I’m doing now, by the way–

after the fifth week and into the sixth

I’m rewriting everything–

the way my hair stands on my head

the way I speak to strangers on North Ave.

the way I ask for help when someone offers Kentucky rye

and I feel ridiculous most days–

my unkempt hair serifs in the back

my words on the sidewalk come out Comic Sans

my pleas get lost in gutteral gulps

I felt glorious and now I don’t–

but no one is to blame

if Melville could do rewrite his landscape for a loved one–

the least I can do is find words for my own undoing.





That sick feeling – nerves charging like hot dye through my veins, that manifest themselves as an emotional montage across my face – a rapid progression, illuminated: confusion, excitement, fear, sorrow.

I caught a glimpse of you. I turned my head and let the mélange play out; my cheeks grew warm like tight, fresh bread rolls from the oven. My eyes watered. I gulped and it stung. I gulped again.

Outside, icicles dangle like death-defying friends, clinging to awnings, their grips slipping. Could fall any moment, but for now they’re just laughing at the hazard of it all.

I wish you were here.

Goddamn, I wish you were.

I would pluck one word from each of the world’s 6,500 languages – the word that best describes you – Gigil, Toska, Litcost – and I would declare you as such for the next 6,500 days. One word for each day. One new word per morning that we wake up to watch the dangling icicles outside our windows, laughing at us as they barely hold on. One new word per morning we witness the sunrise bursting forth like some fat, drunk man exiting a bathroom stall – clumsy, shiny, rotund. One new word per morning that we arise to find a still-dark sky full of blinking stars.

Come back, नींद आ रही है एक, come back.

Artwork by Seurat

There are years that ask questions and years that answer. – Zora Neale Hurston

It’s 6:30 p.m. on a Wednesday evening. I’m sitting on my couch, watching my cats lob curled-paw punches at each other across the living room. Dinner is on the coffee table, steaming. It’s a big bowl of cheese, broccoli, sweet rice flour, and sunflower seeds gussied up into what most folks might consider a “casserole.” Don’t get me wrong; it will taste good – this casserole. Whenever I decide to eat it, that is.

Right now I’m too engrossed in my own thoughts to think about food, though I’m certain at some point the wafting smell of it will pique my olfactory interests. I’ll start to do the whole Pavlovian song-and-dance, subconsciously salivating while lost in the turbulent flow of my own inner thoughts.

Tomorrow is the last day of 2015. I’m trying, I suppose, to psyche myself  into bidding the year goodbye in hopes that I’ll awake on January 1st like some old desk top computer with a brand new hard drive – I’ll spring back to life blank and happy, full of energy, with nary a connection to memories of things past.

This is a dumb notion to entertain. And it’s naive. I know that.

Really, I don’t want my memories from this year to be altogether erased, though muted wouldn’t hurt.

They’ll dull in time though.

I know that too.

It was a good year for me – 2015. I shouldn’t write as though I’m conjuring the ghost of Thomas Hardy’s narrative style when, in reality, I’m not altogether unhappy. I did the things I set out to do: I published more; I involved myself in the local lit scene, which is, as it turns out, a safe haven for me when I start to feel like this (note to self: participate even more in 2016); I finally let go of some deep-rooted feelings of inadequacy and envy I’ve long harbored toward other writers – and goddamn did that feel amazing. So I did a lot. “Go me,” I suppose.

Still, this sweeping inner thought vortex keeps spitting out the same notion over and over and over at me. Something’s missing, it says. Something’s not here. 

My initial reaction to this theme reprisal is to think, “A person. A person is missing.” And while there’s some truth to this hair-trigger conclusion, the missing person is not who I automatically assume it to be (someone faceless I haven’t even met yet – i.e. a girlfriend).

Because I know this person is me. I’m missing.

I think part of the reason why I’ve metaphorically disappeared has to do with the fact that I keep entertaining this vortex. It’s full of deep concepts and intriguing concerns and brights ideas, sure. But, just as much, it’s a tornado made of junk. And when I pay it too much mind, some of that junk comes out of me – in the form of words, of proclamations, of unresearched theories about the people and things around me. And I share them because, well, that’s what I do: I’m a writer. I share. A lot.

But I don’t want to do that anymore. I want to write, of course. But I don’t want to share like every rustling notion in my brain is owed some kind of due attention. It’s frenzying and haphazard. And it’s turned me into someone self-absorbed, pushing my own theories and philosophies onto others without even asking first.

It’s… annoying.

Now, I can see the irony of this situation – striving to think less of myself by thinking about myself thinking less about myself. That is its own, separate kind of vortex.

What I really want to do in 2016 is work toward being someone who’s less concerned about her own tragedies (oftentimes self-made) and more attuned to the lives of others – to their tragedies and triumphs. Because that’s where I found most of my happiness this past year –  with others. Learning about them. Learning from them. Learning with them.

And I think, in doing this, I’ll start to reappear again.

Seven weeks later

Thirty-six cases of beer

Oops-I meant bird flu


Seven weeks later

fewer bodies on Lesbos

caught up on the rocks

Seven weeks later

that marathon in New York

seems easier now


Seven weeks later

I saw the sun rise downtown

in a bowl of broth


Seven weeks later

there are rats in the backyard

collecting dust bins


Seven weeks later

there is dust in my bedroom

collecting sweat drops


Seven weeks later

I lost the one photo I

had of us outside





What Weekly Magazine -

photo by philippe leroyer

1.) Ada is beautiful from any angle. The proof is in her OkCupid photos. My favorite: an aerial-view headshot, half of her face is obstructed by the edge of the photograph. A soft gaze. Smooth features. Her lips are pressed together. Is she being coy? Expressing apathy? Her eyes say, “Keep guessing.” There’s another photograph I like: Ada is sitting, leaning forward, laughing. Her long, dark hair is in a bun. Her lips shine, freshly-glossed. Her teeth are straight. I imagine she’s giggling at a joke I’ve just made. The one about the primary difference between blondes and airplanes. You know, not everybody’s been on an airplane.

2.) She’s picky. After having thoroughly read through her OkCupid profile, my first message to Ada is this: You’re a librarian and a burlesque dancer? How are you single? She doesn’t respond. Internally, I defend her silence: Well, that was a stupid question. So I follow my inquiry up with an observation. I write: Well, that was a stupid question. Sorry. She writes back: I’m picky. At the end of her two-word response, a little winking emoticon.

3.) Ada and I are messaging each other every day. Multiple times a day. We ask each other questions: What are you reading? What’s your favorite font? What do you miss most about your hometown? It’s interrogative momentum. Ada misses watching thunderstorms rise over Lake Michigan. Remember her answers, I think. It’s important that you listen and remember this time.

4.) I send Ada a message: I should be honest and tell you I’m in early sobriety. She is neither alarmed nor is she perturbed. In fact, she congratulates me on being clean and sober. Then she informs me that she’s never touched drugs or alcohol; that several members of her family are addicts who, growing up, subjected her to frightening, inebriated debacles. I write back: You’re kidding. You’ve seriously never tried drugs or alcohol? She responds with an exclamatory one-word reply: No! A few moments pass. I’m sure I’ve offended her with my disbelief. I’m about to write her again to see if she’s mad when, suddenly, a new message: What’s your opinion of the Oxford Comma? At the end of her question, a little winking emoticon.

5.) We finally meet up. The first thing I notice: her lips. They’re pressed together in a smile. Her eyes say, “Hello.”

6.) Ada considers a lot of things in her life to be “brilliant”: I’m working on a new dance number and it’s going to be brilliant and I put together this great costume and it’s going to look brilliant. She also likes to brag about the various things at which she excels: vegan cooking, playing computer games, and organizing friends’ homes, to name a few. I message her: Well, I used to be good at taking pills and drinking a lot. She doesn’t respond. So I write again: And I’m learning to cook. Sort of. I’m learning to have an interest in cooking, at least. Maybe I’ll make you vegan cupcakes. She writes back to tell me that vegan cooking is not hard; it’s best to start with the simple dishes first.

7.) Ada is bragging to me about how fast she can read. I write back: Well, I make decent quesadillas. She tells me she cooked several dishes for a potluck earlier and everyone loved her food; in fact, they couldn’t get enough of it. I congratulate her and type: I have a completely flawless driving record. Every time Ada boasts, I respond by pointing out something exceptional about myself. This is not typical of me.

8.) Ada scrunches up her nose to keep her glasses from sliding down. We’re on our second “date.” She’s taken a train up to see me and another friend of hers here in town. All week, I’ve been reintroducing myself to manners: opening doors for people, smiling, giving up my seat for little old ladies on the bus. I even went on a “practice date” with a friend who, once the bill arrived, reminded me to say, “Please, please, let me get this.” I‘m taking Ada to a restaurant known for its brilliant vegan food. I open the front door for her and, as she walks through, she scrunches up her nose. Then we sit down. She looks over a menu and scrunches up her nose. I can hardly stand it. This makes me want to kiss her. Right when her lips get pouty and twisted. But I don’t do it. Not at the restaurant, I think. Wait until later. At the train station. Right now, make sure she orders first.

9.) At the train station, Ada hugs me goodbye. She scrunches up her nose. I want to kiss her. Right when her lips get pouty and twisted. But I don’t.

10.) Ada walks off into the train station. I screech out of the parking lot, hoping she doesn’t hear my dramatic departure. I’m so mad at myself. This is typical of me. When I get home, I run upstairs, flip open my laptop, and type: I wanted to kiss you tonight but I didn’t. This all so new to me, now that I’m sober. I hope this doesn’t make you uncomfortable.

11.) Ada isn’t sure how she feels about my forfeited kissing endeavor. That’s what she says, at least. But she adds that her reaction to a kiss from me would probably not have been a negative one. Then: winking emoticon.

12.) Now, Ada is my muse.

13.) Ada is going to be busy at work. She’s just giving me a heads up in case I don’t hear from her for a while. Her hectic schedule hasn’t interfered with our correspondences before, so, in all likelihood, it won’t now. I send her a message: What have you got to brag about today? I add a winking emoticon. She doesn’t respond. An hour later, I write: Are you there? Hello? Another winking emoticon. Three hours later: Hey, did I upset you? Have I done something wrong? Nothing. Five hours. Where are you? I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings somehow. Seven hours. I wish you would tell me what I’ve done wrong. Nine hours. Ada finally writes back: I told you I’m busy at work. I don’t mean to be a jerk, but I typically don’t respond well to non-stop, badgering emails like this.

I am standing outside of the rehab facility I visit once a week. I look around, panicked. Is this what I’m really like?

14.) Ada and I make plans to see a movie but, because I’m so humiliated by the badgering email debacle, I back out a few days beforehand. I tell her I shouldn’t be spending money on the train ride. I tell her I’m still too early in sobriety to be dating. All of this is true, but I’m also afraid to be near her. What if she scrunches up her nose and it makes me want to kiss her and, when I try, she says no? And what if I can’t stop myself from trying to kiss her until she gets angry and shouts, “By the way, I don’t respond well to sexual harassment!”

15.) I deactivate my OkCupid profile. I want to message Ada: You see, I’m brilliant at pretending I don’t care. I even get involved with someone else. Every once in a while, Ada and I message each other: How’s your day? What’s new? Interrogative courtesy.

16.) I miss Ada. I should tell her that, I think. But I don’t.

17.) It’s like I am on one shore of a lake, Ada is on the other. When I finally decide I really want to paddle across this time, it’s too late. She messages to tell me she’s met someone; it’s very serious. I am standing outside of rehab again. I’m panicked. I cry a little and start calling my friends, telling them I need their help. I’m in pain, I say. I’m being imperative. This is not typical of me. My sponsor says that it’s progress.

18.) I know that Ada misses watching thunderstorms rise over Lake Michigan.

It’s hard to conjure Indiana sensations in a Baltimore row house surrounded by seagulls. But that’s exactly what I’m trying to do right now. I’m struggling to muster up the feeling of morning at my parents’ house, sneaking outside for a cigarette to the sparrows singing in disgust—“No smoking, no smoking!”—before climbing on my bike, taking off for downtown.

Most mornings in my hometown of Richmond, Indiana, the air reeked of wet pet chow from the Purina plant in town. But on some mornings, the Richmond Baking Company would beat Purina in a grand olfactory showdown, winning back the hearts of citizens citywide with whiffs of fresh cookies, if only for a few hours.

I’m thinking about Richmond this morning because I miss it—the creaky boards of my parents’ front porch, the hills around their house—brown in fall, green in spring; hills that kill and thrill crazy kids in their crap cars year-round. Most people don’t imagine Indiana as land laden with slopes and knolls. But Richmond’s niche, midway between Kentucky and Michigan, edging up to Ohio, is where the smooth scape stops and hill country begins.

I’ve had a few friends here “on the East Coast”—who were born and raised here “on the East Coast”—proffer up comical, inaccurate impressions of what Indiana folk must be like—we have gravel-mouth drawls, own dirt-stained work bibs, have a penchant for constant corn. True, Indiana is corn country; between every tiny town sits a metropolis of cornstalks. But for many Indiana folks, corn is just as much for trade as it is for taste.

I’m missing Richmond and I’m not sure why. I don’t want to be there this instant. I want to be there twenty years ago. That’s what I keep thinking about—Richmond twenty years ago. When the tiny town with its hills and its creaky porches and its pet chow plant was all I knew.

I was fourteen then. The age of abhorrence. My hormonal disdain knew no bounds—teachers could fuck off, parents could fuck off, homework could fuck off; German class and biology class and pre-SAT prep classes—they could all fuck off too. School was for kids who gave fucks and, well, I didn’t much.

One thing I especially despised at that age was the unoriginality of my hometown’s name. Seems like a strange and particular thing to hate, but it was something over which I obsessed and made note of often. Mid-argument, no matter the real issue at hand, I’d throw in an attack on my hometown’s moniker: “Everything sucks here because we’re in a Richmond. There’s a Richmond in every state. All the teenagers in every Richmond probably hate the dumbass town they live in because it’s a Richmond. Essentially, Richmond, Indiana is like John Doe, Indiana. And guess what? John Doe is fuckin’ boring.”


It was a twisted, immature logic, especially when I tried to use it to explain away the bad grades on my report card. It’s not my fault, it’s this town’s name’s fault—was not much of an argument. I see that now, but back then it made perfect sense to me. For all I cared, Richmond, Indiana could take its commonplace name and fuck off.

You may be wondering why I’m missing Richmond right now, given that I apparently hated it so much. And you may be particularly curious as to why I’m longing for a time in my life during which I hated (the name of) my hometown the most.

I think this longing is more for a sense of resourcefulness I once had than it is, say, arbitrary or simply age-related. I miss how inventive I was twenty years ago in Richmond Fuckin’ Indiana—when I was fourteen, bored, really into discovering good music, and, as of yet, not completely suicidal. Because if you wanted exposure to good music in Richmond—not just for the benefit of listening, but also for the benefit of knowing—then you had to be creative to get it. Even back then I understood the difference between someone saying “I know this song” and someone else saying “I know this song” and that the difference was most discernible in the focus of that person’s eyes. I really wanted the glazed glance of the person who knew her music. Sure, there was MTV, but even back then it was changing its direction. And the music wasn’t necessarily that great anyway. Just the same videos on repeat: Soundgarden’s ‘Black Hole Sun’ video with melting doll faces; Lisa Loeb in her cat-eye glasses looking like how some of my friends do now, beg-singing for someone to stay; and Ace of Base’s horrible synth-pop song ‘All That She Wants’—a tune that got stuck so easily in your that all that you wanted was another handgun.

No, if you were a fourteen-year-old in Richmond, Indiana and you wanted exposure to decent music, then you probably rode your bike to one of two places: Side 1 Music or Earlham College. The former was a record store; the latter a safe haven for many local teens, because smack-dab in the middle of their otherwise nondescript John-Doe-ish Midwestern town was a liberal arts college of national repute. Ani Difranco played there in the early nineties, as did Phish and Dar Williams. Sure, these names might provoke scoffs or shrugs or laughter now, but they didn’t so much back then. There were a host of other little-to-lesser known bands—bands that would later make it big—that played in rinky-dink Richmond, Indiana in their early days. And for this the local teens were actually quite lucky and grateful.


But let me stop right here. Really, I’m not being fair to Richmond. Though it wasn’t much of a big deal at the end of the twentieth century, the small city had, at one point in the twenties, been home to Gennett Records, a company that not only recorded the likes of Hoagy Carmichael, Louis Armstraong, and Gene Autry, it actually pressed their records too. So there was musicality—original musicality and musical history—in Richmond at one point. And there were residual fans of that golden era, my grandmother being one, who kept its memory alive. But I didn’t appreciate all this at fourteen. In fact, I fear that, had someone told me all this about Gennett Records at the time, I might’ve said Gennett Records could fuck off.

But back to the Indiana sensations of which I’ve been trying to conjure up. I actually miss the smell of pet chow in the morning. It seemed at its strongest during summer months. And I long for how it felt to get up on those stinky summer mornings, knowing I was going to devote my entire day to either attaining a particular album or hanging out at Earlham College, where there was food, an endlessly-abandoned indoor pool hall, and the audiocassettes of college kids blasting bands like Sebadoh or Skankin’ Pickle or Sonic Youth. This morning-time anticipation invoked strange, almost synesthetic associations. In order to ride my bike anywhere, the weather had to be nice, so the smell of pet chow or the occasional fresh-from-the-oven sugar cookie made my calf muscles ache. I’d listen to a tape from Side 1 music—Frente or Mazzy Star or The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, something I’d purchased by way of a three-hour bike journey—and the music would make me think of the color gray. Because that’s all I’d seen for miles and miles en route to retrieve said tape, uphill and downhill toward the record store—gray pavement, gray gravel, sometimes a gray overcast sky.

And corn. Lots of music made me think of corn.

I didn’t have a job at fourteen; therefore I didn’t have much money. Sometimes being resourceful meant having to “borrow forever.” I couldn’t borrow from Side 1 Music, but I could from the Earlham College radio studio, which was located in the same building as the abandoned pool hall. Like the abandoned pool hall, the studio seemed perpetually unmonitored, perhaps because the music selection there consisted of albums most teenagers wouldn’t consider worth stealing—Leonard Bernstein’s Mozart or Debussy’s Claire de Lune or Walter Ostanek’s Grammy-award-winning polka compilation “Accordioningly Yours.” Still, there were several albums in one corner of the room that were stacked in conspicuous disarray. I could see right through the ol’ carefully-disheveled-Jenga-tower-of-CDs trick; such staged carelessness didn’t fool me. These were the albums played by students late at night, the albums I needed to know. Though I managed to transport all of two CDs from this stack—each during a separate trip to Earlham—all the way back to my bedroom, I cherished these albums even more for their embezzled classification in my growing library; they were Magnapop’s ‘Hot Boxing’ and The Lemonheads’ ‘It’s a Shame About Ray.’


My visits to Side 1 Music were made with more focus; I’d go with enough stashed or filched cash to actually buy something. I also went to ogle the musicians who worked there, one of whom—Norm Kirby—was lead singer in the band Kites Above Mercury. He was a few years older than I, which meant approaching him was something I did sparingly, out of fear of saying something dumb.

Norm had the quintessential rockstar’s mouth, comparable to Steven Tyler’s and Mick Jagger’s. It was safe to say, in the most unironic way possible, that his mouth was indeed purdy. He also had the quintessential rock star physique, comparable to Iggy Pop’s or Perry Farrell’s. The words “pretty” or “purdy” didn’t apply to him here. In fact, when I’d go see Kites perform, the first word that came to mind the moment Norm removed his shirt was “irritable.” Norm looked irritable on stage, which, I suppose, was his intent. He agitated the crowd; looked like he wanted to struggle right out of his skin and couldn’t. And since we couldn’t struggle out of our skins any better, we stared and screamed and wriggled around on Norm’s behalf. Sometimes Kites Above Mercury shows felt transcendental like that. We were all devoted to helping irritable Norm out of his small-town Richmond skin, to following his mighty lips to stardom.

If it is indeed a lost sense of resourcefulness I’m missing this morning, one that I associate with my younger days in Indiana, then there must be a reason for it. I suppose it may have to do with the twenty years that followed, most of which were spent battling addiction. I only emerged from that haze two years ago, without one single attachment to place or sound. I discovered new music. Then I forgot it. I moved around, smoking a hundred cigarettes on a few dozen different porches. Not once did I wake up and want to make a special journey to procure new music. I stopped stealing CDs and started stealing money. Then I started selling CDs.

But it’s possible to regain sensations, or so I’ve been told. And I think this is true. Because when I listen to music—Frente or Sonic Youth or Sebadoh, whatever from twenty years ago—I feel those old leg cramps flarin’ up again, just a little, like phantom cramps. And no matter where I go, I know the fuckin’ pavement is gray.


“I Know This Song” first appeared on Queen Mob’s Teahouse.